The 57 Bus

The 57 Bus cover

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Book Review

*The 57 Bus* by Dashka Slater shows how a community responds when a disadvantaged black teen lights an agender teen on fire on a city bus.

Plot Summary

This true story, compiled from interviews, news articles and other documents, revolves around an incident that took place Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, on Oakland, California’s 57 bus. Sasha, a teen at a small private school, rides the 57 bus home as usual. The bus’s 11-mile route joins middle-class and less desirable areas of the city.

Sasha, an intelligent young person with Asperger’s, lives with educated parents in a better area of town. Sasha identifies as “agender,” someone who does not claim a specific gender. Sasha is a boy previously known as Luke. Sasha has come to enjoy dressing in unique and flamboyant clothing. On that day, Sasha wears a gauzy white skirt.

On the same bus, 16-year-old Richard and his friends from southeast Oakland are looking for trouble. The black teens try to pick up girls before noticing Sasha sleeping in a seat nearby. As his friends egg him on, Richard uses a lighter to set Sasha’s skirt on fire. Richard doesn’t expect much to happen and thought it would be funny.

The first few attempts yield nothing. Then, the whole skirt bursts into flames. Two men on the bus act quickly to put out the fire, but Sasha suffers third-degree burns and spends weeks getting skin grafts in the hospital burn unit. Richard and his friends flee the scene, but the bus camera has captured the act. Richard is arrested, and the court plans to try him as an adult for a violent hate crime.

*The 57 Bus* profiles Sasha, Richard and their families, showing what their lives were like before and after the events of Nov. 4, 2013. The author, a journalist, describes the character of Oakland and the criminal justice system’s typical treatment of underage offenders at the time. She reveals how both families fought to have Richard tried as a juvenile in hopes he would avoid the long-term repercussions and influences of adult prison.

The narrative also offers detailed information about gender issues and the challenges nonbinary individuals face in society. It includes a list of terms explaining the various classifications by which non-heterosexual people choose to identify. The book ends with Sasha’s acceptance into MIT and Richard getting out of prison before his 21st birthday due in part to Sasha’s parents’ testimony.

Christian Beliefs

Jasmine takes Richard to church during his childhood and prays for him. She urges those who speak out against her son in the media to take their remarks to God and pray for Richard. She claims God doesn’t do anything on accident, so He knows what He’s doing with Richard in the midst of the court battles.

Richard writes several letters of apology to Sasha’s family. In one, he quotes Jeremiah 1:5. He contends all people were made for a good purpose, so he hopes they won’t think he is evil. In another place, the author says Richard goes to church services in his facility and likes studying the Bible. He especially likes the story of Job.

Richard reports finding comfort in God’s wisdom and the idea that he shouldn’t question God’s choices for his life. (When summarizing the story of Job for readers, the author erroneously writes that “God kills” the people and takes away the possessions Job loved. She also says God killed Job’s wife.)

Other Belief Systems

Richard’s old friend says their group did a lot of things wrong. She blames karma for the group’s tragedies, including Richard’s incarceration and the deaths of other members.

Authority Roles

Sasha’s parents initially struggle a little to embrace “they” as a pronoun for their son. They support Sasha’s decisions and stand with Sasha through hospitalization and court battles while demonstrating sympathy and forgiveness for Richard and his family. Jasmine, Richard’s poor single mom, often regrets the things she couldn’t or didn’t do to help her son. Richard’s mentor, Kaprice, uses her past experiences to guide and help troubled kids.

Profanity & Violence

The Lord’s name is used in vain a number of times. The f-word, s—, a–, d–n, b–ch, p—y and the n-word (and variations) often appear. Oaklanders use hella and its politer form, hecka, to mean very. As a youth, Sasha’s father was followed by a man who asked to suck his pr–k.

The book includes many statistics about the violence inflicted on people identifying as non-heterosexuals as well as ethnic minorities in neighborhoods like Richard’s. It also lists facts surrounding youth incarceration and youths tried as adults. It mentions the horrific conditions of some prisons before reform began in the mid-2000s. The life stories of Richard’s mother and Richard’s mentor include notes about extreme drinking, drug trafficking and use, gang activity, poverty, rape, shootings and other crime in their poor area of town.

Sexual Content

Sexual orientation is a major theme, and the author lists a number of terms that define different types of sexuality. For example, “gender fluid” refers to someone who sometimes identifies as male and sometimes as female. A “genderqueer” person feels their gender identity doesn’t fit neatly in either the male or female category. Other terms define what type of person might be chosen as a romantic or sexual partner, if the person finds sex interesting at all.

The text mentions how Sasha’s friend, Samantha, hides her developing breasts. Samantha later transitions to become Andrew. People who don’t know better ask if Andrew had a sex transplant. Andrew calls it a thank God moment when he learns Sasha is also questioning gender. When Andrew and Sasha meet again years later, Andrew admits being a boy isn’t wonderful either. He says he might consider moving toward androgyny.

Sasha initially identifies as “genderqueer” when first questioning and later switches to “agender” (someone who doesn’t identity as any gender). Sasha insists that parents and friends use the pronouns “they, them and their” rather than “he” or “she” when referring to Sasha. (The author always refers to Sasha using these pronouns.) Sasha’s mother is annoyed by the mandate at first, mainly because it’s hard to remember to use “they” and because Sasha refuses to go to a designated “male” or “female” bathroom. Most of Sasha’s friends have enough experience with people in the LGBTQ community that they don’t see Sasha’s decision as a big deal. Sasha has no interest in intercourse with anyone, male or female. Sasha makes several petitions on a White House website to have all legal documents recognize and provide options for people who don’t fit into the gender category of male or female.

Sasha dates Nemo, who identifies as gender fluid. To Nemo, that means having the potential to be any gender at any time. The two describe their relationship as platonic with elements some might consider romantic, like cuddling. It is nonsexual, since Nemo claims to be asexual (not physically attracted to anyone) and Sasha claims to be aromantic (not romantically drawn to anyone).

Describing Oakland, the author mentions that the city prides itself on open-mindedness and has one of the largest gay and lesbian populations in the nation.

Richard’s mother, pregnant at 14, decides to raise a child because it’s too late to have an abortion. Richard tells police he doesn’t hate gay people but is homophobic. Because he admits these things without a lawyer present, the police use them to charge him with a hate crime. Richard has a non-heterosexual relative.

Discussion Topics

None.

Additional Comments

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