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After a Tragedy, a Portrait of Hope : Books: A fatal school bus crash in rural Texas compelled novelist Russell Banks to write about the way a close-knit community survives a devastating loss.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You’ve seen the stories. You may have cringed--or wept outright--as you thought of young lives snuffed out by some awful, angry error of fate. You’ve felt those stories haunt you and wondered about their aftermaths.

This is what happened, anyway, when novelist Russell Banks found his attention riveted by news reports in 1989 of a school bus crash in rural Texas that killed 14 children.

Banks kept dwelling on the aftermath. How did the families carry on in the face of such a tragedy? What of the survivors, those who must forever balance guilt at having lived against a blessed relief at having been spared? What of the community and its struggle to restore some semblance of order?

As he read more about the town and the accident, he found himself reflecting on his own experiences growing up dirt-poor in New England. The fatal bus accident became a metaphor and a vehicle. The “personal and the extra-personal,” Banks said, began to link up. The result was “The Sweet Hereafter,” his 11th book, about how a community copes with the tragic death of 14 schoolchildren on a snowy day.

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“I got intrigued by the community,” Banks said in an interview here. “I was interested in the morality of it, and in the possibility of redemption.” He wanted to find out: “How could a community not come undone?” More than in any of his earlier books, he wanted to offer “a positive and optimistic look at life in the here and now.”

His fascination with what happens to people in tightly knit communities when disaster occurs led him to put aside 150 pages of another novel in progress and to announce in a note to his editor: “I’m about to write a book that begins with a school bus accident.”

“Oh great,” Banks could imagine his editor thinking, “another cheery topic for a book.”

But what finally emerged in “The Sweet Hereafter” was a hopeful portrait of a town’s spiritual redemption, and of the strength of the individual human spirit. Banks calls the novel “a book that gropes its way toward transcendence.” Despite the horror they have been through, he said, “the characters themselves are able to transcend their plights, their catastrophes.”

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This kind of optimism is a departure for the 52-year-old Banks. Menace has traditionally inhabited his books; so have horrifying shifts of mood and a sense that tragedy is as imminent as it is inevitable. Race, class and gender imprison many Banks characters. Small gritty towns are the settings.

“Affliction,” his last novel, dealt with domestic violence and a terrifying father. Both were familiar themes for Banks, who both hated and adored the father who drank too much, abused his wife and children and cast a constant shadow of fear before finally abandoning the family when Russell was 12.

“Continental Drift,” published in 1985 and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize a year later, probed the dark world of drug trafficking in Florida and the Caribbean.

If there is a harshness to the reality of a Russell Banks novel, it is because that is the truth with which Banks was raised. His father was a pipe fitter in the blue-collar town of Barnstead, N.H. There were four children, not much money and a lot of argument. In the Banks family there was an expectation less of failure than of lack of success. “Success was a kind of betrayal,” Banks said.

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But a “great good fortune” also watched over him, Banks has come to believe. “As I get older, I realize it increasingly,” he said.

He had two unmarried aunts, for example, “who, I have a feeling, provided me with a sense of my own self-worth.” One, “Aunt Frances,” took over whenever his parents were fighting--which was most of the time. “Those first four years of my life, I probably spent more time with her than I did with my parents,” Banks said. “Aunt Mimi,” a “middle-aged bachelor lady” who was also a schoolteacher, “was the one who took you seriously if you demonstrated any kind of intellectual interest or gifts, while the rest of the family kind of carped about it,” Banks said.

Fortune handed Banks a passport out of poverty when Colgate University offered him an academic scholarship. But eight weeks of college convinced him he was a misfit. Banks dropped out, determined to go to Cuba and fight the revolution with Fidel Castro.

The fact that he spoke no Spanish, had no money and didn’t really know where Havana was brought his revolutionary intentions to an abrupt halt. He got as far as Florida, where he married and promptly found himself with a job as a window dresser at Montgomery Ward and a baby on the way.

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Good luck seems to have kept its eye on Banks there as well. He drank a lot and was prone to barroom brawls, he says, but “at least I didn’t get shot in a bar.”

Then, at 22, Banks again collided with fortune. By day he was working as a plumber in Concord, N.H., where he moved after his divorce. At night he was writing a novel. He packed up his manuscript and headed for a mountaintop writers’ conference, where one of the first people he encountered was Nelson Algren.

Algren was desperate to get off the mountain and into a real town where he could find some real food and a real drink. Banks was a fan who had read “A Walk on the Wild Side” and was eager for the critique of a real writer. In this case what befell Banks was “the simple-minded good luck of being a young guy with a car.” Riding in Banks’ pickup truck, Algren read Banks’ manuscript and deemed it “not crazy.”

“What he said was, ‘This was real writing,’ ” Banks remembered. Algren became Banks’ mentor.

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Banks’ second marriage brought him three more daughters and the luck of a mother-in-law who saw his promise, and offered to pay his way through college. The marriage crumbled, as did his third attempt at matrimony. But his reimmersion into the world of letters seems to have stuck.

Banks has not only earned his degree, but has taught at the University of New Hampshire, at Sarah Lawrence College and, since 1982, at Princeton University. Several years ago he entered the marriage he believes will also endure, to poet Chase Twichell.

“The Sweet Hereafter” is a book Banks said he could not have undertaken until his own four children were grown. With young children of his own, the prospect of examining how families deal with the deaths of children would have been just too unnerving, Banks said. “Until now, my own night terrors would have gotten tied up with it,” he said.

As it was, Banks knew more than enough about the peculiar and tenacious grief that comes with the loss of a child. Part of “the personal linkup” in “The Sweet Hereafter” is that Banks’ “baby brother,” Christopher, was killed while hitching a ride on a train in 1969. Christopher was 17.

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“I know how Christopher’s death affected the family,” Banks said. “My mother, certainly, and to a lesser degree and in a different way, the three surviving siblings are defined by the before and after of Christopher’s death.”

Banks and Twichell, who also teaches at Princeton, spend their summers in the Adirondacks. Banks has set up a separate little writing cabin at his house there, further evidence of just how good the writing life has been to him, and proof once again of the gentle hand of good fortune.

He is said to keep a hard hat in his office at Princeton as a reminder of his origins and of the serendipitous nature of fate.

“I know enough about myself to know that it could have gone the other way at any given moment,” Banks said.

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