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Thursday, March 3, 2005

The Casual Critic — Rachel Simon's Riding the Bus with My Sister

If it wasn't a true story, Rachel Simon's Riding the Bus with My Sister may have seemed just a touch over the top. Instead, this true story of an older sister discovering her younger sister with mental retardation, which reads as well as any good novel, will stir true emotions.

A self-described hyper-busy person — teaching college courses, writing commentary for The Philadelphia Inquirer, relentlessly pursuing a writing career, and more-Rachel has grown apart from Beth, who is only 11 months younger. A woman with mental retardation, Beth has created a life for herself centered around riding city buses morning to night, six days a week, which both mystifies and distresses her family. When she invites Rachel to ride along for a year, the older sister finds herself challenged in ways she never imagined.

I admit, having heard about this book only by coincidence, I was more than a little reluctant to read it. The premise seemed destined to produce the type of awe-shucks story that, as a person involved with disability community, makes my stomach turn. Quite simply, it was nothing of the sort.

Simon artfully weaves the story of their family—an amazing story in itself — with the year in which she periodically rides the buses with her sister. She deals honestly with the fears and frustration that Beth's disability and strong-willed nature cause the family. Simon even admits to the "dark voice" that is angry at many of the choices Beth has made, and struggles to learn the difference between Beth's disability and Beth's personality.

In her year on the buses, Rachel discovers a world of prejudice, social services, and, most unbelievably, bus drivers that her sister lives in every day. The relationship between Beth and many of the bus drivers is almost too good to believe, as Rachel admits, but is written honestly enough to include the real-life difficulties and pain they cause Beth at times.

I'm tempted to reach for the top of The Casual Critic Scale by saying you can't ask for more, but will hold back and nudge it to an absolute make a point to read it.

(See our interview with Rachel Simon.)

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