After the First Death

This 1979 novel by Robert Cormier is harrowing. I first read it in college, for an adolescent literature class required for teaching certification, and it has stuck with me. A recent conversation will fellow Book Riot contributors got me to reread. And it’s maybe even more disturbing than I remembered.

The story unfolds in two separate strands. The first involves a boy named Ben who has apparently been sent away to school after being shot. He is waiting for a visit from his father General Mark Marchand. Later, these chapters also include narration from Mark, who is trying to connect with his son.

The alternating chapters tell a more straightforward, but gripping story of a bus hijacking. A young man named Miro, from an unnamed (presumably Middle Eastern) country, is part of a team of terrorists who have commandeered a school bus full of small children. The plan is to hold them hostage until their demands are met. The driver, a young woman named Kate, was supposed to be killed when the bus was taken, but she’s help alive to keep the children calm as the bus sits on an isolated railroad bridge.

This section, told in the third person, focuses on the thoughts and feelings of both Miro and Kate. We see them watching each other, Kate looking for opportunities to escape and Miro looking to ensure that she doesn’t. Both try to gain the other’s sympathy, which is sometimes effective and sometimes not.

Cormier is not messing around in this book. The states are high from the start. A child on the bus dies almost immediately (mostly by accident), and the terrorists make it clear that they’re willing to kill more. Kate’s fear is justified, and her courage is admirable—and Cormier makes both her fear and her courage palpable. He does falter a bit in the depiction of the children. One child in particular is not a believable 5-year-old, even a clever one. But that doesn’t detract from the terror in the story.

The story of Ben and Mark, however, is the more complicated and difficult one. The chapters they narrate have a dreamlike quality. As they unfold, we start to see the links between the two stories. The hijacking took place near the Marchands’ home, and Mark is involved in a secret military project that the terrorists want dismantled. And both Ben and Mark are haunted by that bridge where the bus was sitting. Ben considers jumping off a bridge, and Mark worries that he will do so.

The specific secret that haunts them, that led to Ben’s getting shot, is hard to accept, but Cormier does his best to justify it. What’s more interesting, however, is what is happening to Ben and Mark in the aftermath, what the plan reveals about their relationship and how they feel about each other. The final chapter is particularly bewildering in that respect, and the secret embedded there is never fully spelled out.

Both threads share the common theme of how parents influence their children. In the first case, there’s the relationship between Mark and Ben. But there are suggestions about Miro’s own father and how his actions put Miro where he is. What parents say and what they do and what they believe about their kids have long-term effects. This book presents a worst-case scenario, where even a well-meaning parent is forced to act against his child’s best interests. The push and pull between generations can be intense.

This was the first book by Robert Cormier that I ever read, and it put me on the trail of several of his other books, specifically I Am the Cheese and The Chocolate War—if I’ve read others, I don’t remember them. It’s also a book that convinced me that young adult books can be complex and difficult. And, years later, I still found it hard to put down, even when the story became too hard to take.

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7 Responses to After the First Death

  1. I haven’t re-read this for years but I too remember it as the first YA novel I read that I felt was really adddressing issues that went beyond the usual teenage dilemmas. For this reason I always used to schedule it as reading for the Children’s Literature course I taught at university. Cormier is not as well known in the U.K. as he should be and this novel always came as a shock to my students.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s one of the most memorable books I read in college. I was assigned to a group that had to present on it, and I still remember how we grappled with that ending!

  2. From your fine review, I did not get the impression this was a YA book. Harrowing and thought provoking. :-)

  3. I read The Chocolate War ages ago and remember it being heavy too. Interesting to ponder trends in YA literature over the years. Most of the YA I see being checked out here is fantasy and romance. I wonder if Cormier is being read still.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder, too. This book seems timely to me, maybe more so than when it was written. But that could make it harder to teach in schools or encourage kids to read.

  4. Sarah Cords says:

    Hmmmm, can I handle more Robert Cormier? Every few years I re-read “The Chocolate War” because I’m always a bit stunned at its lack of a very happy ending. So realistic, SO scary. I might try this one this summer, if I find myself needing a harrowing read. Thanks for the review!

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