68 pages 2 hours read

Robert Cormier

After The First Death

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1979

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Summary and Study Guide


After the First Death (1979) by Robert Cormier is a juvenile suspense/horror that examines the fragility of life through a terrorist hijacking of a bus full of children. The book in conjunction with Cormier’s two most famous teen titles, The Chocolate War (1974) and I Am the Cheese (1977), won him the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the Young Adult Services Division of the American Library Association in 1991. Cormier was born in 1925 and lived his entire life in Leominster, MA. He had his first professional publication in The Sign Magazine while a freshman at Fitchburg State College. After graduation, he worked writing scripts and commercials for radio station WTAG. He went on to have an award-winning career in newspaper journalism, working for the Worcester Telegram and Fitchburg Sentinel. He left the newspaper to write novels fulltime in 1978 and passed away in 2000. This guide follows the Random House Childrens Books 1979 version of After the First Death.

Plot Summary

After the First Death follows several characters who are affected by the terrorist hijacking of a bus in Massachusetts. The book consists of 12 parts that alternate between the events of the hijacking (even-numbered sections) and two viewpoints looking back on the event (odd-numbered sections). The odd-numbered parts initially follow Ben Markhand, the son of General Marcus Markhand—leader of the forces opposing the terrorists. The general later takes over the perspective. The even-numbered parts shift between Kate Forrester (the teenage girl who drives the bus) and hijackers Miro Shantas and Artkin.

Parts 1, 3, and 5 are told from Ben’s perspective. Ben attends Castleton Academy (Castle) in New Hampshire, a boarding school for boys that his father attended years ago. It has been some time since the bus incident, but Ben still feels as if it were yesterday. In a series of journal entry-style commentaries, Ben talks about the situation that led up to him arriving on the bridge where the hijackers held the bus. In the real-time, we learn Ben goes as an emissary to deliver false information to the hijackers. In the process, the hijackers torture and shoot Ben, and he now waits for the right moment to end his life.

Parts 7, 9, and 11 follow General Markhand as he also looks back on the hijacking. Like Ben, he grapples with his actions, always coming back to belief in his decisions. The general discovers Ben’s writings and knows them for what they are: a goodbye. Though the book doesn’t describe it, we may infer from General Markhand’s thoughts that Ben succeeded in killing himself. Part 11 shows the general losing touch with reality.

The even-numbered parts begin a bit before the bus is hijacked and continue through the entire confrontation and into its aftermath. Most of this follows Miro and Kate as they navigate the hijacking and learn truths about themselves and each other. Miro is supposed to kill Kate, the bus driver, as soon as the bus reaches the bridge, but after Artkin gives the children a sedative drug to keep them quiet, one of the children dies. Rather than Kate’s death, the hijackers use the child’s death to reinforce how serious they are about the demands they’ve made from the United States government. Most importantly, they want the government to close down an organization called Inner Delta, the same organization that General Markhand heads.

As the hours stretch on, Kate struggles to convince herself she is brave, and Miro tries to maintain his emotionless state. Having wet herself when the hijackers first boarded the bus, Kate finds an opportunity to remove her underwear. As she’s putting her wallet back in her pants pocket, she discovers an extra key to the bus that she forgot about. The next time Miro leaves the bus, she tries to drive away, but the bus stalls. A bit later, a sniper accidentally shoots one of the other hijackers. The terms of the demands say a child will die for each time the hijackers are harmed, and Artkin kills a second child, leaving Kate emotionally wrecked.

Early on the second day of the hijacking, American forces attack. In the commotion, Miro escapes with Kate as a hostage. They hide in the nearby woods, where Kate makes a final attempt to win Miro over. Her efforts cause Miro to lose control of himself. He shoots Kate, killing her, and makes a run for it, ending the book unchanged from how he began.