In “The 57 Bus,” author Dashka Slater masterfully narrates a true story that unfolds on the seemingly mundane backdrop of a city bus ride in Oakland, California.
This gripping tale transcends the simplicity of its setting, delving into the complex and intertwined lives of two teenagers from starkly different worlds. Sasha, an agender teen from a private school, and Richard, an African American boy from a less privileged neighborhood, find their paths converging in a moment that will irrevocably change both their lives.
Sasha, an agender senior from a private school in Berkley, defies conventional gender norms. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at a young age, Sasha’s world is one of language and its limitations, particularly in expressing gender.
They find solace in their unique identity, supported by a close circle of friends and a deep interest in Russian culture and bus transit. Sasha’s choice to wear skirts, blending masculine and feminine attire, is a quiet statement of their gender fluidity.
Meanwhile, Richard’s life unfolds in stark contrast.
Growing up in East Oakland’s challenging flatlands, he navigates a world of personal loss and societal expectations. Richard, known for his humor and comforting presence, struggles academically and has faced his share of troubles, including a stint in a youth home.
Despite these hurdles, he aspires to a brighter future, driven by a desire to make his mother proud and escape the cycle of violence and poverty that surrounds him.
Their worlds collide catastrophically when Richard, in a thoughtless act, sets fire to Sasha’s skirt on the bus.
What starts as a prank spirals into a tragedy. Sasha suffers severe burns, requiring extensive surgery and a long recovery, while Richard faces serious legal repercussions.
Charged with hate crimes and tried as an adult, he is swept into the criminal justice system, facing systemic racism and a public quick to judge.
As Sasha recovers, they receive an outpouring of support from the community, challenging their perception of being a hate crime victim. Sasha’s resilience is remarkable, leading them to an acceptance at MIT and a fresh start.
In contrast, Richard’s journey through the legal system is a harsh lesson in justice and punishment. His remorse, conveyed in letters that reach Sasha too late, paints a picture of a boy who never intended harm.
“The 57 Bus” is more than a tale of two individuals; it’s a narrative about the complexities of identity, the consequences of actions, and the nuances of justice.
Slater delves into the concept of restorative justice, contrasting it with the punitive approach of the Californian legal system.
In the end, while Sasha moves forward, embracing new opportunities, Richard’s story is a sobering reminder of how a single moment can irrevocably alter multiple lives.
Sasha, a genderqueer, agender senior from a private school in Berkeley, doesn’t conform to traditional gender norms.
They are diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at a young age, which contributes to their unique perspective on the world. Sasha is fascinated by languages, particularly in how they define and divide genders. They express their gender fluidity through their clothing, typically combining skirts with more masculine attire.
Despite challenges, Sasha is supported by a loving family and a close group of friends. They are also passionate about Russian culture and bus transit systems.
Richard, a sixteen-year-old African American boy, attends Oakland High School. He comes from a less affluent part of Oakland, known as the flatlands.
His life is marked by personal challenges, including a history of academic struggles and a stint in a youth home due to fighting. Despite these setbacks, Richard is known for his humor and caring nature, often being a source of comfort to his friends.
He aspires to make a positive change in his life, partly motivated by the desire to make his mother proud.
Karl and Debbie
Sasha’s parents embody compassion and support. Initially puzzled by Sasha’s agender identity, they evolve into advocates, emphasizing understanding and acceptance.
Their stance on Richard’s punishment highlights their empathy, prioritizing rehabilitation over retribution.
Richard’s mother, who had him at a young age, blends kindness with strictness in her parenting. Surrounded by violence, Jasmine finds solace in her faith, especially after Richard’s arrest.
Her reaction to Sasha’s family, filled with empathy and regret, underscores her profound sense of responsibility and compassion.
A close friend of Richard, Cherie’s shared experiences with him highlight the consequences of their choices during adolescence. Her observations of their friend group, now scattered by incarceration, death, or teenage parenthood, contrast starkly with her and one other friend’s efforts to stay in school.
A mentor at Oakland High School, Kaprice’s transformation from a “Princess of East Oakland” to a dedicated supporter of at-risk youth mirrors the story’s themes of growth and redemption.
Her past relationship with a gang member, ending in tragedy, fuels her commitment to guiding teenagers like Richard towards better paths.
Initially introduced as Samantha, Andrew, a middle school friend of Sasha’s, later comes out as transgender.
His journey towards self-identification and considering an agender identity echoes Sasha’s own experiences, highlighting the spectrum of gender identity beyond the binary.
A friend of Richard on the fateful bus ride, Jamal’s role in encouraging the attack on Sasha and intending to film it adds a layer of peer pressure and impulsivity to the incident, reflecting the complexities of teenage interactions and decisions.
1. The Complexity of Gender Identity and Social Acceptance
The book delves deeply into the theme of gender identity, particularly through Sasha’s journey as an agender individual.
Sasha’s experience highlights the societal challenges and misunderstandings surrounding non-binary and genderqueer identities. The book doesn’t just present Sasha’s gender identity as a fact; it explores the nuances of their daily life, from their choice of clothing to their struggle for acceptance in a binary world.
This theme extends to a broader examination of how society categorizes and reacts to people who don’t conform to traditional gender norms.
Sasha’s story serves as a window into the diverse spectrum of gender identities and the importance of respect and understanding in fostering an inclusive society.
2. The Impact of Youthful Actions and the Criminal Justice System
Richard’s story in “The 57 Bus” is a poignant exploration of how a single impulsive act can have far-reaching consequences.
The book scrutinizes the American criminal justice system, particularly its treatment of young, African American males like Richard. It raises critical questions about the nature of justice, the role of intent in criminal acts, and the long-term impact of incarceration on youth.
Slater’s narrative challenges readers to consider the balance between accountability and empathy, highlighting how the system often fails to account for the complexity of individual circumstances and the potential for rehabilitation and redemption.
3. Restorative Justice and the Power of Forgiveness
A central theme in the book is the concept of restorative justice, an alternative approach to dealing with crime and conflict.
The book contrasts the traditional punitive justice system with the principles of restorative justice, which focuses on healing and reconciliation rather than punishment.
Through the lens of Sasha’s and Richard’s experiences, Slater explores the potential for healing and understanding in the aftermath of a crime. The narrative examines the power of forgiveness, the importance of communication in resolving conflicts, and the possibility of redemption.
This theme is particularly poignant in the context of Sasha’s mixed feelings about Richard’s punishment and their eventual acceptance of his apology, showcasing the human capacity for empathy and understanding in even the most challenging circumstances.
“The 57 Bus” is a poignant and thought-provoking narrative that highlights the importance of empathy, understanding, and the impact of our actions on others.
It sheds light on crucial social issues like gender identity and systemic injustice, while also offering a powerful commentary on the possibilities and limitations of forgiveness and redemption in our society.
The story serves as a reminder of how interconnected our lives are and how a moment of thoughtlessness can have far-reaching consequences.