Even as life begins to move on in the months after the accident, the Brennan family continues to feel bogged down by the massive debts they feel they owe everyone around them—from Luke and Nicole's grieving parents, to Aunty Kath and Fin. Through the healing process and in particular through Daniel's journey, the novel sharply interrogates what redemption means for someone who, like Daniel, has taken lives because of his own carelessness, as well as what redemption looks like for those who love him in spite of his actions. By exploring the ways in which Daniel and his immediate family are both successful and unsuccessful in figuring out how to move forward in the world with the massive debt they feel obligated to carry, The Story of Tom Brennan suggests that one of the most effective ways to redeem oneself is to help others and give back wherever possible.
Within weeks of the accident, Daniel begins court-mandated counseling. He receives general counseling as well as counseling specifically intended to address his alcoholism, which was the one of the major issues that caused the accident in the first place. At the suggestion of his lawyer, he also writes apology letters to Nicole and Luke's families. The letters in particular are supposed to help create the image that Daniel recognizes the impact of his actions and is attempting to do better as he moves forward with his life. While Daniel's intense grief, anxiety, and remorse during those first few months suggest that he does recognize that what he did was wrong and is something he'll have to do his best to atone for, the letter that Nicole's family sends the Brennans in return makes it clear that this process isn't going to be an easy one. They write that it will be impossible for them to ever forgive Daniel for what he did, as they'll never have their daughter back—while Daniel will eventually be able to move on from the event and with his life.
This letter does several things. First, it implicates the entire Brennan family in Daniel's actions, as it's addressed to all of them. It notes (and others note several times) that Daniel was "an accident waiting to happen," which shifts the blame from Daniel alone to blame Mum and Dad as well—they're the ones who, in the eyes of the Mumbilli residents, allowed this to happen by not properly reining in their son. This letter, then, is a poignant reminder that redemption and forgiveness are things that people actually have to earn as opposed to something they can simply ask for. This is reinforced later at Daniel's sentencing hearing, when the judge echoes some of the same sentiments of the letter and suggests that Daniel needs a longer sentence in order to properly atone for his choices and the damage they caused.
Daniel spends his first several months in prison becoming increasingly depressed and struggles immensely with intense feelings of guilt and remorse. After Fin's birthday, Daniel becomes suicidal and is transferred to a crisis center, which is set up more like a mental hospital or a rehab center than a jail. There, Daniel is not only assigned a mentor, counselor, and a social worker, he's also assigned someone to mentor himself. Daniel's mentee, Theo, was convicted for drunk driving charges as well. Having the responsibility of mentoring Theo allows Daniel to develop a more nuanced understanding of what happened and also allows him to begin believing that there is indeed a way forward. Notably, Daniel is able to come to this realization because mentoring, unlike simply writing a letter to Nicole and Luke's families, allows Daniel to actually give back to his community and help someone else in a similar situation. In other words, while he's not able to specifically help Mumbilli heal by mentoring Theo, he's able to help Theo and Theo's hometown through this role, just as Daniel's mentor helps Mumbilli heal by mentoring Daniel.
This idea of finding a sense of redemption through giving back touches others in the Brennan family as well, Kylie in particular. On the night of the accident, a drunk and violent fight between Fin and Daniel over Daniel's girlfriend, Claire, set the stage for the tragedy less than an hour later. Unbeknownst to most, however, the conflict wasn't entirely unfounded: Claire did like Fin and wanted to leave Daniel, and Kylie sneakily helped Claire start to see Fin in the week before the accident. Because Kylie feels responsible for fanning the flames of conflict between Fin and Daniel, she throws herself into helping Fin and Aunty Kath move into their apartment after Fin is released from his rehab facility.
Tom, on the other hand, "gives back" most notably in the immediate aftermath of the accident itself. Because he feels responsible for not trying to stop Daniel from driving drunk, when he, Matt, and Snorter return to the accident site, Tom feels obligated to stay by Fin's side until the paramedics are able to remove Fin from the car and transfer him to a hospital.
Taken together, the various instances in which the Brennans are relatively successful in repaying their debts suggests that it's not enough for someone to simply be sorry; rather, one must actually take action to show that one wants to make things better. However, it's also worth keeping in mind that as far as the reader knows, Mumbilli as a whole never forgives the Brennan family, and Daniel and Fin never see each other to begin repairing their relationship. These loose ends make it clear that redemption and forgiveness aren't things that simply happen once—they’re things that all the Brennans will have to continue to negotiate, renegotiate, and work towards for years to come.
Debt and Redemption ThemeTracker
Debt and Redemption Quotes in The Story of Tom Brennan
Somewhere in the bush, hard to say how far away, I could hear the painful sound of groaning, retching sobs. It was Daniel but I couldn't go to him. Part of me wanted to, the other part didn't. I knew I had to stay with Fin, stay with the mess Daniel had made. Yet a voice inside of me was screaming, "He's alive, he's alive. Daniel's alive."
Brendan didn't want to say how bad Fin really was because it'd upset Dad and it wasn't his fault. But then Dad couldn't tell Brendan, or probably anyone for that matter, what state Daniel was in because the general consensus was that Daniel deserved what he got.
Wasn't his life worth more? But that's exactly why he was here, because a life was worth something, and Daniel took two away. Whichever way I turned, my questions only found another one, always worse than the last.
"But remember your fellow man, Daniel, because life is more than just a one-man show. Everything we do in this life affects others. Did you think of that the night you got behind the wheel, your trusting passengers the loved ones of others? We think probably not."
"Being a team player, you should have known better."
"It gets him out of the mainstream for a while, gives him a bit of breathing space," explained Brendan. "He finds the visiting hard. I mean, it's his lifeline, but the guilt resurfaces every time. That's what strangles him."
I mean, it was bad—it was all bad—but even after the worst visits, there was still hope when you left him, some hope in the realization that one day Daniel'd be getting out of there, a free man.
But Fin would never be free, and that was too enormous to swallow.
Us Brennans had a lot to ask for and not much reason to give thanks. But I was thankful. Mum was up.
Since Dad's rave I'd been giving it all a fair bit of thought, but I couldn't exactly put my finger on it.
"You know, Dan, they really enjoy playing. It's not just about winning."
"Can't see the point," Dan frowned. "I mean, it's all about winning. Isn't it?"
"They couldn't control Dan. They were scared of him. Well, scared of the consequences if they tried to pull him into line [...] Maybe Daniel was always going to do something like this. Maybe he had to fall this far."