In the final section of the novel, The Sweet Hereafter, Banks seems to be using the demolition derby setting as a place for everyone to meet and see just exactly how things have changed in the town of Sam Dent since the tragic bus accident that happened the previous winter. It serves as a place that can be compared and contrasted with how the townspeople act this year versus the previous years. It is also a place where most everyone in the town comes annually. It may be told through Dolores’ perspective but she gives the reader an idea of exactly how different of an experience it is for her this year from last year. She also eludes through her narration how specific people are different this year.
The most significant change in a person that I was able to notice was the change in Billy Ansel. Dolores commented on how he was drunk when she saw him at the demolition derby. He was carrying a flask with him and had a woman with him that was, as Dolores commented, “Not the sort of woman you’d expect to see in Billy Ansel’s company” (233). Dolores described the way Billy used to be by saying that he “had been a noble man; and now he was ruined” (235). I could tell differences in Billy as well. The first thing that tipped me off about how he was acting was that he was cursing profusely. Before all of this happened he would curse, but at the demolition derby it was like he couldn’t go for an entire sentence without cursing.
Russell Banks did a very good job of changing the dialogue that came about in a conversation with Billy Ansel. It really gave me a sense of giving up. It seems to me that Billy has given up. He no longer is trying to be the pillar of strength that he used to be. He doesn’t hide the fact that he is a drunk and he doesn’t seem to care very much about the woman he is with. These are some very big changes in Billy. He is clearly a wounded and beaten man. I think that Dolores summed it up perfectly when she said, “I looked across to Billy Ansel and realized that what frightened and saddened me most about him was that he no longer loved anybody. All the man had was himself. And you can’t love only yourself”(237).
Another reason why I think that Banks put Dolores at the Demolition Derby was to give her a chance to reflect upon all the other lives that were affected by the tragic accident. She goes on for two pages about all the people who were different now. The Walkers were getting a divorce, the Lamstons were on welfare, the Bilodeaus and Atwaters were in jail for dealing drugs, and the Ottos were isolating themselves from the world. Because Dolores was in this situation with all the townspeople shunning her, it served as the perfect time and place to wrap up exactly what has become of the survivors and the families of the victims.
Overall, the county fair and demolition derby was the perfect place to end the novel. It brought everyone together again because it was an annual event that the whole town attended. It served as a comparison to the past years when it would be in town. When you go to an event every year such as this you tend to know what to expect. This year Dolores had no idea and that scared her. The whole time she was there she was making then and now comparisons of the people who she saw. The reflections and comparisons are a perfect way to show exactly how affected by the accident the people of Sam Dent were. It seems to me that this town has given up just as Billy Ansel did. Dolores says, “All over town there were empty houses and trailers for sale that last winter had been homes with families in them.
A town needs its children, just as much and in the same ways as a family does. It comes undone without them, turns a community into a windblown scattering of isolated individuals” (236). This is the way that I see this town as well. It definitely resembles what I would think that a windblown scattering of isolated individuals would look like. Clearly this accident has affected the whole town in a way that might never be repaired. And the last section that takes place at the demolition derby was a place for them all to come together and show each other exactly how different it all was.