“The 57 Bus: A true Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives” by Dashka Slater

57bus

asteriaiconI first heard about this book on a weekly podcast I listen to. I knew it pertained to a discriminatory crime that affected two teens. That was it. I thought I had a better idea of what the book was about based on the title, and it turns out I was way way off! I assumed from the title the crime took place in 1957 on a bus. As such, the crime involved was most likely racially related, so I assumed a white teen attacked a black teen. As it turns out, I was way off, and the book revolves around a way more recent crime. Still, I found the book incredibly interesting.

In November 2013, in Oakland, California, two teens are among the riders of the 57 bus. Their paths only intersect for 8 minutes, but that 8 minutes changed everything. Sasha is a white a-gender teen, who attends a private middle school, and was on their way home from school, cat-napping on the ride home. Richard is a black teen who goes to a public school, and lives in a poor area of town. Richard was also on his way home from school, goofing around with his friends.

This particular afternoon, Richard is laughing with his friends, and sees Sasha napping. He makes the quick, thoughtless, decision to take a lighter to Sasha’s lacy skirt. He didn’t expect the skirt to go up in flames quite so fast. By the time the bus reaches the next stop, Sasha’s leg is severely burned and Richard is arrested and charged with 2 hate crime charges.

The author pieces the book together by doing a number of interviews, reading diaries and letters, and checking social media. What is the result is a very detailed, unbiased account, of the teens’ lives and the events that led up to that day.

Sasha identifies as a-gender, neither male nor female.  Sasha prefers the term “they” rather than “he” or “she”. They come from a solidly middle class family. They have worn skirts to school for a number of years, liking the way they feel in them. They were diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child, but it has not had a huge impact on their life.  They are comfortable with who they are. On this particular day, Sasha wakes up on the bus with their skirt on fire, and sustains burns to 20% of their body from the fire.

Richard on the other hand, did not have the same privileges Sasha had growing up. Crime rates are markedly higher in his neighbourhood, and the rates of graduation from high school are low. He knew friends who have died from gun violence, and wanted away from that lifestyle. He is not a bad kid, he wanted to do better for himself, and even sought out extra help from a teacher. He really did not mean for everything to play out the way it did, having not really thought his actions through. He told police that he lit the skirt on fire because he was homophobic, to him a shrug and a “cuz” is a reason, and as a result he was tried as an adult for hate crimes.

I really appreciated how the author wrote very matter of factly. Richard was not portrayed as a villain, just a teenager acting without thinking. If anything, the book was written more to illustrate both teens were victims of their own circumstances, their lifestyles, their lack of foresight and rational logic. I also appreciated the details the author used to illustrate non-binary gender identities, as I had no idea there were so many!

The author also used the platform to illustrate some shocking statistics and raise awareness. As a Canadian, I am not familiar with much in the way of American statistics, but some were absolutely staggering. Oakland, where the boys lived, is the second most dangerous city in America, and seventh overall in income inequality. Of the violence that occurs, it is particularly high against the LGBTQ community.

I found the book to be such a fascinating look at today’s society, how the justice system works, the different gender identities, and how likely black people are charged versus white. Compassion and forgiveness are also explored, which is just as important as the story and the statistics. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a more increased awareness of the world around them!

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