After the First Death by Robert Cormier

The fates of two young men collide on a bridge when a group of terrorists take over a schoolbus filled with children.

After the First Death is not the book I remember it to be–it was one of the enigmatic reads of my childhood. But now I see that it’s pretty straightforward, or maybe I just know a lot more about terrorism than I did when I was a kid.

Cormier is a pretty manipulative author, in terms of how he treats his characters. Of course, all authors play God (that’s the fun of writing fiction), but Cormier’s one where you really feel him pulling the strings. In a work like The Chocolate War, he gets away with it because one of the aims of the book is to interrogate the way control operates in interpersonal relationships and in institutions. It makes sense for those characters to be constrained.

In After the First Death, the manipulation just feels unfair, particularly as it relates to the death of one of the children in particular. Though just before this takes place, there is a startlingly honest moment with the bus driver that knocked me out of my socks. She’s ready to be a hero, but then finds herself relieved (and ashamed of her relief) when they choose the child anyway.

I’ve read a few Cormier books since starting this blog (click the Robert Cormier tag for a complete list), and what I’m finding is that he impresses me less now that I’m an adult. When I was younger, I thought he was the greatest writer alive–and he certainly has considerable storytelling powers–but his books don’t affect me the way they once did. I think it’s because his books offer younger readers a peek at adulthood in a way that’s compelling, even seductive, and it seems elliptical, even occult. But now I’m old enough to know what Cormier knew when he wrote these books, and that means that so much of their power has been dispelled for me.

4 thoughts on “After the First Death by Robert Cormier”

  1. I just recently started picking Cormier books back up myself. I’ve never read this book, but I remember his books the way you described it. They seemed to show dark secrets of adulthood.

    I read Fade and couldn’t help but think “Man, this guy is COLD to his characters.” With all the warnings that people had given me of Fade, I did expect it to be even more horrific, but it was tolerable. There wasn’t anything in any of the books that can’t be topped by any prime time cop show.

    My daughter is 13, so I have been re-reading a bunch of the books that I read at that age and then passing them down to her. I hesitated at Fade, but she’s old enough and mature enough… And I’m still dealing with the fact that her interests are influenced by that whole “different gender” thing.

    I knew she’d like Fade, though, since she seems to be drawn to these sorts of stories. (Her mother and her are the ones who watch the aforementioned cop shows. Law and Order: SVU and the like.)

  2. I’m pretty sure I read Fade, but I don’t remember it.

    What other books have you been giving your daughter? I definitely have books I’m saving for my future child, who I hope is a bookworm like me.

  3. She’s gotten some JRR Tolkien books from me along with the disclaimer that she probably won’t finish them, that they were very dry and difficult to finish.

    She got some CS Lewis Narnia books, along with the secret “these are a Christian allegory!” (Because it was such an amazing surprise to me when my pastor let me in on the secret.)

    I have Madeleine L’Engle on the bookshelf, waiting for her, along with a few others. I’ve been looking for some Bellairs books, have a few Roald Dahl saved for her, and plenty of Shel Silverstein.

    She’s already taken from the shelf my “cheesy dumb vampire novels” that I used to read constantly in college, along with all the other horror novels I used to love. (Clive Barker, Steven King, etc). Those all happened a bit earlier than I had expected.

    She also got some of the children’s books that we saved for her, both from her mother, myself, her grand parents, and also family friends. She’s had boxes of books available to her since before she was born.

    She’s passed a few books back this direction, as well. She and her mother got me to read the Harry Potter series (though, I haven’t finished the latest two books), and we all were introduced to the Spiderwick Chronicles and the Series of Unfortunate Events together.

  4. That’s a great list–I’ve got L’Engle and Lewis as well. I am making a note to stockpile John Bellairs. My brother & I were obsessed with his books.

    I’ve also got Edward Eager’s Half Magic and the rest in the series, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, and Julie of the Wolves, in case I have a girl who is as much of a reader as I am.

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