“The 57 Bus” by Dashka Slater is a nonfiction book about an agender teenager who was set on fire by another teen while riding a bus home from school in Oakland, Calif. in 2013.
In a small private high school, Sasha, a white teen, enjoyed “a tight circle of friends,” “blazed through calculus, linguistics, physics, and computer programming,” and invented languages.
Sasha didn’t fall into a neat gender category and considered “the place in-between…a real place.” Encouraged by parents who supported self-expression, Sasha began to use the pronoun they. They wore a skirt for the first time during their school’s annual cross-dressing day and began to identify as genderqueer.
On the other side of Oakland, Richard, a Black teen, was “always goofing around” at a high school where roughly one-third of the students failed to graduate. Within a few short years, his closest friends would be pregnant, in jail, or shot dead, but Richard tried to stay out of real trouble. One fateful day, Sasha was asleep in a “gauzy white skirt” on the 57 bus when a rowdy friend handed Richard a lighter.
Richard, a Black American teenager, is a junior at Oakland High School. He spent the previous year in a home for boys after getting arrested for fighting. Richard is usually a positive person, often goofing off to try to make people laugh, but he has made some poor choices and often skips school with other students who make poor choices. Richard meets Kaprice Wilson, a school guidance counselor.
When she tells him about the program that she runs for underperforming students, he asks if he can join the program voluntarily. After examining Richard’s file, Kaprice accepts him into her program. Sasha is an agender teenager (identifying as neither male nor female) with Asperger’s who attends Maybeck, a private high school. Sasha was named Luke at birth, but at a young age, Sasha decided that neither gender correctly applied.
Sasha chose an androgynous name and the pronoun them. Within a tight-knit group of friends at Maybeck, Sasha feels welcome and supported. They and their friends regularly play a game called 1001 Blank White Cards, where each of the participants has made their own cards, full of in-jokes and silly rules. Sasha forms a close, platonic relationship with Nemo, another agender teenager. Since neither is interested in romance or sex, many people find their relationship confusing.
In November 2013, Sasha rode home on the 57 bus. They fell asleep, tired after a long day at school. Richard and his friend Lloyd also take the bus home after school. When Richard and Lloyd board the bus, they greet their friend Jamal. He gives Richard a lighter. The three boys see Sasha sleeping on the backseat, wearing a skirt. Richard playfully flicks the lighter near Sasha’s skirt, as well as near Lloyd’s sleeve.
With encouragement from Jamal, Richard lights Sasha’s skirt before exiting the rear of the bus. By the time Sasha’s skirt bursts into a ball of flame, Richard is staring at the back of the bus, hearing Sasha’s screams as the bus drives away. After the bus pulls over and confused passengers jump out, two men smother Sasha’s burning skirt. Sasha phones their parents, Karl and Debbie, who arrive before the ambulance and see that Sasha’s upper legs are burned badly. An ambulance takes Sasha to a burn unit in San Francisco.
Richard is arrested at school the next day and questioned by police. Without truly understanding the word, Richard states that he is “homophobic.” He tries to cooperate with the police and gives a statement without his mother or a lawyer present. Richard is charged as an adult with multiple felonies, including hate-crime enhancements. Sasha undergoes weeks of painful surgeries. After the story goes viral, Richard is vilified as anti-gay, while Sasha receives support and gifts from all over the world.
While in Juvenile Hall, Richard writes two letters to Sasha, apologizing and explaining that he never meant to hurt them, that he was just trying to pull a prank. Jasmine, Richard’s mother, hires lawyer Bill Du Bois to defend Richard. Du Bois does not deliver Richard’s letters to Sasha, because he thinks that the admission of guilt will hurt Richard’s case. Sasha’s family is encouraged by all of the support that they have received, but they are still confused by the incident.
After a lengthy series of court proceedings, the district attorney offers Richard a plea bargain: if he maintains good behavior in the juvenile system, he can be released by his twenty-first birthday and never have to serve time in adult prison. Over a year after the incident, Du Bois gives Sasha the letters that Richard wrote.
Sasha’s family is moved by Richard’s sentiments, and Karl reads a statement at one of Richard’s sentencing hearings, stating that the family has forgiven Richard and hopes that the justice system will be lenient. Richard is given the shorter sentence and allowed to stay within the juvenile system.
Richard does well in the juvenile justice system: he earns his high school diploma, obtains vocational training, and works for a nonprofit. He is eventually released before his twenty-first birthday. Sasha is accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the intent to pursue a career in transit.
At MIT, they join a fraternity of like-minded individuals and feel welcome. Sasha returns home on winter break and plays a game of 1001 Blank White Cards with their best friend, Michael. Sasha decides to leave all of the cards that reference “Luke” in the deck, and they digitally scan the cards to preserve them forever. Sasha has moved on from the incident and has a bright future.
In conclusion, I would rate this book 4.5/5 stars because it was a bit long and got a little boring at times. Keep in mind this is just my opinion and it shouldn’t stop you from reading this book. There’s a lot of real world problems that can be correlated with this book and life lessons you can learn. I highly encourage you to read this book!