Study Guide

Continental Drift

by Russell Banks

Continental Drift Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Russell Banks’s Continental Drift recounts the unlikely, intertwined destinies of Bob DuBois, who forsakes his dead-end blue-collar job in New Hampshire to start a new life with his family in Florida, and Vanise Dorsinville, who flees poverty and oppression in Haiti with her infant son and adolescent nephew for the promise of freedom in America.

The novel is divided into eleven alternating sections, preceded by an epic-like “Invocation” and concluding with a summarizing “Envoi,” which contrast the stories of Bob’s and Vanise’s migrations south and north, respectively, their lives finally colliding in a shocking twist of events off the coast of southern Florida. Banks’s third-person narrative voice relates realistically the separate travails these two protagonists undergo in their quest for better lives in Florida, though occasionally the narrator assumes a limited omniscience in plumbing the individual psychology of these characters as they reflect upon their very different cultural backgrounds and beliefs.

The sparse, mock-epic-like invocation informs readers that “This is an American story of the late twentieth century, and you don’t need a muse to tell it.” The story begins with a section recounting the present-day situation of Bob DuBois, who has lived all of his life in Catamount, New Hampshire, and since high school and his glory days as an all-state hockey player has been working as an oil-burner repairman for the Abenaki Oil Company. At thirty, with his wife Elaine, his two daughters, Ruthie and Emma, his run-down duplex in a working-class neighborhood, his battered station-wagon, his $22,000 debt to the local bank, and his occasional sexual fling with his mistress Doris Cleeve, DuBois has become disaffected. Feeling trapped by his environment and angry that none of his dreams are likely to be realized, Bob convinces his wife that they should move to Florida, where his brother Eddie claims to be making “a killing.”

In the book’s next section, Banks radically shifts the...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Continental Drift Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bob Dubois has just gotten paid and heads for a beer in his home town of Catamount, New Hampshire, on a snowy Friday evening just before Christmas. After he drinks his beer, he intends to buy his young daughter a set of figure skates. Though self-reflection is not part of Bob’s nature, he feels a building frustration with his life. He cheats on his wife and feels remorseful, especially when his infidelity leads him to be too late to buy the skates for his daughter. Bob’s unhappiness with his life boils over, and he smashes out all the windows in his car. Finally home, he collapses with his wife Elaine. They decide to try to improve their lives by moving to Florida, where Bob’s brother Eddie lives.

Vanise Dorsinville lives in a small village in Haiti. As a hurricane rages, her family worries about Vanise’s young nephew Claude, who is not at home. When the skies calm, he returns, carrying a ham. When he acknowledges looting it from an overturned truck, they become frightened that Claude will be arrested. The family decides that Vanise should take the boy to Miami, where his father lives.

Eddie arranges a job for Bob running a liquor store. Eddie insists that Bob begin carrying a gun to work, which he can then leave behind the counter. At first Bob is happy with the changes in his life, and he takes a more active interest in his children. Bob is excited to learn that Elaine is carrying their third child.

Everything changes when Bob meets Marguerite Dill, an attractive African American woman who is the daughter of George, the part-time helper at the store. Bob flirts with Marguerite, and they eventually begin a sexual relationship. Late one night, after spending time with Marguerite, Bob interrupts two African American men robbing the store. Holding a shotgun to Bob, one man demands that Bob hand over the night deposit. In a moment of distraction, Bob gets the pistol from behind the counter and shoots dead the man with the shotgun. While Bob calls the police, the other robber runs away.

Vanise and Claude have given their money to a man named Victor, a boat owner. Though he has told a group of Haitians he will take them to Florida, his plan is to drop them off on North Caicos Island, 600 miles from the United States. Vanise prays according to her beliefs: first to the Christian Trinity and then to traditional Haitian powers. They follow a dog to a man named McKissick, who allows them to stay with him, for a price.

Bob Dubois once again feels lost in his life. Two weeks before his wife’s due date, Bob is with his girlfriend when Elaine goes into labor. With the birth of his son, Bob once again vows to be a better husband. The next day, he plans to break things off with Marguerite, but she does not come to the store. He sees her sitting in a car with another man, and Bob is...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)

Continental Drift Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Benvenuto, Christine. “Mapping the Imagination: A Profile of Russell Banks.” Poets and Writers 26 (March/April, 1998): 20-27. A comprehensive discussion of Banks’s main themes and influences, including his views on violence, working-class characters, and contemporary gender issues.

Joyce, Cynthia. “The Salon Interview: Russell Banks.” Salon, January 5, 1998: 1-15. Banks comments upon his writing process, his central thematic preoccupations, and the film versions of his novels.

Lee, Don. “About Russell Banks.” Ploughshares 19, no. 4 (1993): 209-213. A biographical and critical sketch tracing Banks’s background and its influence on his fiction.

Reeves, Trish. “The Search for Clarity: An Interview with Russell Banks.” New Letters 53, no. 3 (1987): 44-59. Reeves questions Banks on the social and realistic themes in his fiction, especially in relevance to Continental Drift.

Vandersee, Charles. “Russell Banks and the Great American Reader.” The Cresset 53, no. 2 (1989): 13-17. Places Banks’s fiction into a larger American literary tradition.