Analysis and Review (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Drawing on folkloric and religious motifs and ideas, Alice Sebold presents a remarkable, complex, and comforting vision of heaven as the platform from which Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by a neighbor at the age of fourteen, tells her story. It is a heaven that indeed has many “mansions,” one of which is the “wide wide Heaven,” which can provide one’s every desire. It also grants omniscience to the narrator. The word Susie’s grandfather has for the dominant quality of this heaven is “comfort,” and oddly comforting, indeed, is Alice Sebold’s novel because it postulates a vision of heaven that begins with an “intake” level of simplicity that matches the experience level of the fourteen-year-old victim and becomes increasingly complex as Susie watches the changes her death effects on her family and friends over a dozen or so years following her death. Sebold’s conception of heaven is a complex and progressive spirit world in which the departed continue to grow and develop; thus, those individuals who die while children “mature” over the years as they would have done had they not died prematurely. Found in a number of formal religions, this progressive conception of the afterlife is, in the hands of Alice Sebold, a moving yet unsentimental perspective from which to tell the story of every parent’s worst nightmare.
Sebold has asked the unthinkable question, yet one writ large in every day’s news headlines: What if one’s young daughter does not come home for dinner one evening? How do parents and siblings, friends and neighbors, police and the rest of the community react to the growing conviction that the child has been murdered? How do they react when a dog brings home “a body part,” an elbow that, for the police at least, confirms her murder? How do they react to the failure of the police investigation to find the body, despite finding convincing quantities of blood in the dirt of the cornfield? How do they react to the failure to find the killer, to bring him to justice? Only gradually and painfully can the family and the police conclude that the investigation is a murder investigation, that Susie Salmon had been abducted, murdered, and forever obliterated from the face of this Earth. Although other evidence is accumulated, the killer is never arrested, tried, convicted, and executed.
Sebold’s choice to have Susie Salmon tell her story from heaven as the first-person narrator in charge of her own story works brilliantly to satisfy the reader of the truth of her vision of heaven as a complex, multidimensioned spiritual reality, a wide place, a place fashioned after the dearest wishes of departed souls. To support her conception of this story, Sebold weaves together cultural myths, Christian scripture, and deeply embedded folk ideas about revenants (souls who return, usually in corporeal form, to the scenes of their lives and their deaths), who may communicate successfully but rarely clearly with those they have left behind, and who sometimes even exact vengeance upon their murderers. Thus, this novel is a wonderful ghost story. However, because it also embodies a vision of a secular heaven to which spirits journey in stages from the moment of their death and are granted in some way the righteous desires of their hearts, the novel is also a complex meditation on those desires, including the desire for retribution.
In Susie’s case, the desire for knowledge is paramount. She wants to learn all that she had not been able to learn in her short time on Earth, the knowledge that living brings of love, sex, work, thought, and family, to grow fully through the whole range of life’s experiences. Franny, her intake counselor, herself murdered by a wife abuser, assures her that that option is not available (an assertion that Susie will later test with startling consequences). At first, her heaven is that mansion to which female murder victims go, shaped in the familiar forms of school grounds and buildings where her heavenly growth begins. She and Holly, her best friend in heaven, discover that just about anything one can desire is available if desired enough and if one understands why one desires it. She and Holly realize, for instance, that Franny reminds them both very much of their mothers because they miss their mothers intensely. Susie’s second desire is to observe, at least, the whole lives she has left behind on Earth so that she and her companion can pretend better, a wish that is granted, thus making the omniscient...
(The entire section is 1828 words.)
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Quizzes: Preface, Chapters 1-5
1. Where is Susie Salmon killed?
2. Why does she go with him?
1. In a secret hiding place Mr. Harvey built in a cornfield near her home.
2. At first she is just being polite to a grownup who is a neighbor. Later, though, Susie is drawn in by the idea of the secret hiding place.
1. How did Fanny die?
2. What is heaven like in The Lovely Bones?
1. She was killed by a man who was looking for his wife, who shot her in the face.
2. Everyone's heaven is different. It changes and expands to match their needs and...
(The entire section is 263 words.)
Quizzes: Chapters 6-10
1. Why doesn't Ray Singh kiss Susie when they are hiding backstage?
2. Why does Mr. Salmon find it hard to talk to Ruana Singh?
1. The stage door opens, startling them, and three people come in: two teachers and Ruth Connors.
2. Her beauty and self-possession put him off balance.
1. Where does the story of the knight come from?
2. When and how does Buckley almost die?
1. Susie and Lindsey tell it back and forth, developing it a bit at a time, in response to the grave rubbing that hangs in their family's home.
(The entire section is 262 words.)
Quizzes: Chapters 11-16
1. Why does Mr. Harvey set alarms in his house?
2. What is in the crawlspace at Mr. Harvey's house?
1. To remind himself to do things like draw the blinds and turn the lights on and off, so his house will appear normal.
2. Bones from many animals he's killed, in his attempt to keep himself from killing girls.
1. How did Len Fenerman's wife die?
1. She committed suicide.
1. Why do Lindsey and Mr. Salmon decide she should break into Mr. Harvey's house?
(The entire section is 238 words.)
Quizzes: Snapshots, Chapters 17-20
1. Who is Sophie Cichetti?
2. Do dogs go to heaven?
1. She was the mother of a Hell's Angel, Ralph Cichetti, who shares the details of her death with Hal Heckler. Her killer had built dollhouses: it was Mr. Harvey.
2. Holliday (the Salmons' dog) does. He's so happy to see Susie that he knocks her over.
1. Why do Samuel and Lindsey end up running home?
1. Two reasons. First, they shift off the motorcycle they're riding because the rain gets too hard, and it becomes dangerous to ride. Then, they run home because they are so excited to share the...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
Quizzes: Chapters 21-23, Bones
1. Who was Grandman Lynn's first kiss?
2. When and how does Ray finally kiss Susie?
1. Mr. McGahern, a father of one of her friends.
2. At her locker, suddenly, as she's saying his name.
1. How does Susie convince Ray that it is her in Ruth's body, not Ruth?
1. He suspects something because she's acting different, but the first real evidence is when she knows where the key is hidden for Hal's bike shop. Later she shares details about the note Ray wrote that only Susie would know.
(The entire section is 232 words.)