Feb. 25th, 2013

capfox: (Live My Way)
It definitely had a different set of stops than I was expecting.

Book #7: Riding the Bus with My Sister
Author: Rachel Simon
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

One of the worst kinds of literature, to my mind, are the ones where your main character is a busy person, trying to succeed, doing their best to make the most of their lives, and then they are exposed to wise old sage / intelligent animal / precocious child / disabled veteran. And then they learn the true value of life, and hurrah, hurrah, their minds are forever changed for the better, and they love the world. Urgh, the trite pastiness of it. And then those books end up super popular, and you hear about them everywhere: this will change your life! You just sigh internally. I picked up this book because my mom recommended it, and she usually has good taste, but I look at the blurbs on the cover ("it touched my soul" - Rosie O'Donnell) and I read the first twenty pages, and I worry.

But - and thankfully, there's a but - the story doesn't pan out that way. This memoir details the year that Rachel Simon spent with her sister with mild mental retardation around on the buses in her sister's small Pennsylvania city. A few years before the time detailed in the book, Beth, her sister, took up riding around the buses of the town all day, chatting with the drivers and learning all the routes and the timetables, to the degree where she serves as a backup resource for new employees, getting access to the driver's room, etc. Not all of the drivers take to her, but enough do, and she feels as if she's found her place.

Rachel had not been close with her sister for some time, but when Beth reached out to her and invited her to spend a year riding with the buses with her, she decided to take time out of her schedule to take up the offer, alongside her classes and writing. The memoir goes along month by month, for the days she's out there with her sister, with the chapters for each month generally including some riding around with a particular driver on the bus, each with different views on the world, jocular, heavy, contemplative, religious, trying to help Beth, or not; and then also some time off the bus, and then finally about the history of the Simon family and dealing with Beth through the years.

It's actually a very easy read, and the different profiles of the bus drivers, intelligent, thoughtful folk (for the ones that get profiled; Simon notes they're not all like that), add some nice variety. But the most interesting part of it is Simon's coming to grapple with her sister and her life, and what it means for her to be a good sister, and a more open person. Simon turned away from her sister some when she was growing up, but she didn't even really know what it meant for people to have the sort of disability her sister has. She hadn't done the research on it until during the year in question, and she hadn't tried to understand her sister's place in life, why she wanted to ride the buses, the level of self-determination she has.

The overall trend in care for those with mental retardation has been to give them more control over their lives, and the book shows both the plusses and minuses of this system - Beth makes her decision about how to make her life fulfilling, but she makes her own bad decisions, too, and it's hard for her sister to watch. But she does get a lot more respect for her sister, and eventually, the feeling becomes more mutual. Beth's fiercely independent, but they do manage to make it work out between them, so that they each have their place with the other.

I actually did come to enjoy this book after the beginning. It's a more complex story, written clearly and with enough emotion to become invested. I learned much about the toughness of the situation, the complexity of living with someone with a real cognitive disability, but that they're really still a complete, full person. Realizing that is hard even when you're in the situation; even with my mom being a special ed teacher, I have a hard time remembering this sometimes.

Anyway, it is an interesting, informative, and, yes, heart-warming read. But not in that bad way. In a better one.

Next up: HMMM. No predictions. We'll see tomorrow.

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