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The long summer has led me to produce a few thoughts on the assigned summer reading. While reading the books The Sweet Hereafter and Crossing to Safety I have discovered the importance of first person. By comparing the books I have found how the first person viewpoint relates to the characters, the action, and how the novels differ by author in their style of writing.
The Sweet Hereafter has an interesting approach to sending us on a journey through the story. By having four narrators we get to see all the angles around the main event. One narration in particular, Billy Ansel, gives us an eye witness account of the featured action in the novel. “The swerve off the road to the right, the skid, the smashing of the guard rail and the snow bank; and then the tilted angled plummet down the embankment to the sand pit, where, moving fast and somehow still upright, the bus slid across the ice to the far side; and then the ice letting go and the rear half of the yellow bus being swallowed at once by the freezing blue green water.” Here we see how the first person can be used for action sequences. Because Billy Ansel was the only eyewitness, it is imperative that Russell Banks puts in his account in his own words, thoughts and feelings. Using the first person is one way to depict action, but it is also an efficient way to describe characters.
Wallace Stegner takes a drastically different approach to his novel Crossing to Safety. The book is primarily told through the eyes of Larry Morgan. Throughout the book we get Larry’s thoughts and feelings on events and happenings from beginning to end. Wallace Stegner uses Larry’s character to describe the other characters and issues. “Charity I was prepared for more or less-the fine narrow head, the drawn back hair, the vivid face, the greetings that managed to be excitedly personal even while she was dividing them among eight of us.” “but right then, in her doorway, crying greeting, she looked simply tall, beautiful, exotic and exuberant.” These excerpts are a good example of Stegner’s use of the first person to describe a character as Larry saw it. Wallace does a good job of making sure not to overindulge the reader with pointless details and leaves the description short and sweet. Banks and Stegner both use the first person to tell their tales, but it is evident that their traits and styles vary significantly.
Banks and Stegner have almost two completely different approaches to their novels. Russel Banks broke his story into four character chapters where we see one angle on the tragedy and surrounding events. By doing so, Banks invokes a different feeling from the book. Russell makes it seem as if the characters are actually talking to the reader, as if they were right across from you telling the story. The use of dialect and vocabulary also give the story a personal touch, to continue the exclusive feeling. Wallace Stegner uses one main character to take us through the book, inserting thoughts and dialogue when necessary. Wallace uses the first person viewpoint very differently than Banks. While reading Crossing to Safety it emits the feeling that the reader is actually there in the scene, watching it all take place as the story goes on. Stegner makes the book feel more like a movie than a story because of his vast descriptiveness in every scene and thought. Wallace makes the story flow slowly building to climax whereas Banks has short thoughts with a peak at every turn of the page.
The Sweet Hereafter and Crossing to Safety are both very-well written books and deserve the credit they get. While both books encompass the first person point of view, it all comes down to the personal choice of the reader, the literary connoisseur.
Stegner, Wallace. Crossing to Safety. New York, 1987.
Banks, Russell. The Sweet Hereafter. New York, NY, 1991.