I am a shy stranger. In the locker room at the recreation center, I am amazed at the men who strike up conversations with others they don't know. I speak when I'm spoken to. I feel awkward when others are overly friendly. I'm alarmed when someone draws undue attention to themselves. I took a trip to New York once with one of my students who is the most extraverted person I know. On every bus and subway car, at every bus station and subway station, on every sidewalk, and in every line we stood, he struck up a conversation with someone we didn't know. He had a gift. Rachel Simon's Riding the Bus with my Sister really reminded me of that trip, of both the embarrassment and the wonder.
It's a true story about Rachel and her sister Beth, who has mild mental retardation. Beth is a thirty-some year old woman who spends her days riding buses in Philadelphia. Rachel tries to put aside her judgment of her little sister's lack of a job and promises to ride the bus with her off and on for a year. At first I wondered if this book would be sentimental, depicting Beth as one of "God's true angels" who speaks truisms out of her open-hearted naivety that the rest of us jaded, "normal" people long for. Simon actually scoffs at that depiction of people with mental retardation. Beth is headstrong and often downright rude. Jacob, one of Beth's bus driver friends, tries to model the golden rule for Beth and convince her to follow it herself, but she isn't going to be easily swayed.
Chapters in the book alternate between describing Beth's relationships with people--whether they be bus drivers, her social workers, or her boyfriend--and telling the heart-breaking story of Rachel and Beth's years growing up. As the book progresses, the two sisters come into clear focus as two wounded people who are stuck in ruts they find nearly impossible to climb out of. Rachel realizes that she is just as much "a clock that nobody can reset" as her sister is. What started out as a favor to her sister, just spending whole days riding the bus with her, becomes a transformational experience in her own life.
For the most part, it is the bus drivers who are the heroes of the book. I will never look at a bus driver the same way again. It takes a real gift to be courteous to rude people, understanding of hurried people, sympathetic with hurting people, and compassionate toward people like Beth who don't fit easily into society, all why negotiating traffic and weather. Some of the bus drivers start out with great intentions, but weary of Beth's persistent demand for attention. I could so easily see myself as one of those. True love is shown over the long haul. It has been a long time since I have felt as convicted by my own lack of love as this boook has made me feel.
Even Rachel comes to several points at which she distances herself from her sister. Once, she goes to the back of the bus and acts like she doesn't know her. It sounds terribly hurtful, but having read to that point in the book, I completely understood. Those who love Beth the most seem to set boundaries for their relationship, but continue to care for her even when she bucks against them. Relationships aren't easy. When those boundaries are set though, they really do enjoy her, and just riding the bus all day, Beth really does have a lot to offer society.
Having a sacramental view of sex and marriage, I found that Rachel Simon's acceptance of people living together outside of marriage was a hurdle I had to jump over in order to appreciate the book. Apart from that one difference in values, I felt like the book would really be great for high school students to read on their own or even study in class. Riding the Bus with My Sister belongs on the shelf with other great nonfiction books like Angela's Ashes, Obasan, and The Color of Water. It had me in tears at several points. The ending was particularly a wonderful surprise.
- Jon Carter
- I am a high school English teacher who loves to read, and I'm passionate about finding quality books for my students to read. The reviews on this blog will reflect what I am currently reading and sometimes what my students are reading. The books that appear on the list are ones that I think would be of interest to high school students, are age appropriate in content and difficulty, and in some way tap into eternal truths. Most are classics, but some are just fun, popular books.