The 57 Bus

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 17 Oct 2017

Member Reviews

Although not the root cause, the two teenagers involved in this situation were on different sides of a sharp class divide. Shasha, white, came from a middle-class background; at home, they had time to dream, read, and create other languages, worlds, and plans for their own future. Richard, Black, attended a school with larger classes, more working class students, and more crime in the surrounding neighborhoods -- little time or quiet for dreams and aspirations there. Judging from the information in this book, Richard seems to have had no contact with the Bay Area’s Black middle class, a social class which is not new (it existed before the technology industry boom). Sasha’s own parents would have modeled certain forms of class mobility, while Richard have had no such experience.

The author’s use of short chapters works very well for this particular sad, true story.  In  so many criminal incidents or disasters, the ‘real story’ is told in fragments: witnesses, first responders, victims, perpetrators, counselors, and that’s why the shart chapter lengths works. 

Slater obviously devoted time and consideration to handling this story in an empathetic way. Because Richard remained incarcerated when this book was written, it’s understandable that his side of the story lacks a certain depth. Perhaps this may have been remedied somewhat by researching and discussing the larger context of his teenage world. African American communities have always had LGBTQIA people, out to one degree or another. Black queerness is hardly an innovation, as certain early Blues recordings (Ma Rainey’s Prove it on Me) make clear. Working-class Black queer dance, slang vocabulary, mannerism, fashion, performance styles, and more are repeatedly copied and reproduced in mainstream culture, usually without no acknowledgment of the original creators. This sort of  historical and social context is absent, and it makes the book feel somewhat unbalanced. What might Richard have been likely to hear and observe when growing up? Who lives in the Oakland neighborhoods where he lived and attended school? It’s just as likely that Richard might have been goaded to set a Black nonbinary gender person’s skirt on fire, although there may not have been as much media attention. Statistical data about family income, school completion rates, and racialized institutional and social environments can’t answer all of “Why?” questions here. How could they?

The adults around Richard could only present one side of this story. Some mystery remains at the end of the book; who were the older women that came to Richard’s court hearings to observe? The author includes a brief reference to a short TV interview at the courtroom in which the women express concern over juvenile justice sentencing. Whether or not they took any action --- letters to officials or to Richard, for example -- remains unknown. Had the author been able to find and interview these women, it may added some depth to the story, and offered more possibilities for a motive.

An empathetic, dedicated member of the school staff made the time and effort to ask Richard about his inner life and home lives, the interviews with her show that the adults in his life were fully aware of the problems in the children’s environments, and that they wanted to help. 

So is this book about race, sexuality, gender roles, or all three? Maybe it’s about the last. Without a more personal understanding of the environment Richard lived in, there is no real sense of his interior life. He remains nearly as distant and unknowable at the book’s end as its beginning, despite the author’s choice of interview subjects. In contrast, the in-depth interviews with Sasha’s parents and various forms of documentation provide a well-rounded portrait. Only Sasha seems truly alive at the end of the book, flourishing at MIT, able to put a lifelong interest in public transportation to use in preparation for a career. The frightening, bewildering incident isn’t forgettable, but they have something to look forward to.

Book clubs may want to choose some additional materials to read and discuss if they select The 57 Bus. I recommend this as a way to inform participants about nonbinary gender, LBGTQIA people in African American history and culture, and the changing Bay Area.
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When Sasha fell asleep on the bus, Richard decided to set Sasha's skirt on fire.  What he thought would be a funny joke, turned serious as the skirt erupted into a fireball, severely burning Sasha.  The police and media called it a hate crime - a crime against the lgbtq community.  

Alternating between Sasha and Richard's story, this book sets up a frank discussion of gender and sexuality.  It shows the seriousness of one's actions and how a seemingly harmless prank could have turned deadly.  I think this is an important read for those of all ages. Overall, highly recommended.
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