Friday, February 6, 2009
Riding the Bus With My Sister: What does it mean to have mental retardation?
On this year's Illinois Read for a Lifetime list, Riding the Bus With My Sister by Rachel Simon is an inspirational, heartfelt, and brutally honest look at the joys and the pain of one sister reconnecting with another. Rachel Simon is an academic who buries herself in her work and has little time for other people. Her sister, Beth, has mental retardation and spends most of her days riding the buses in Philadelphia, where she lives independently. Rachel and Beth's family has always agonized over Beth and the role that the family should play in her life. They want her to get a job and become a productive member of society, which is something it seems she could certainly do, that is, if that's what she wanted to do. Beth's greatest desire in life is independence to do what she wants, and what she wants to do is ride the buses. While riding, she befriends the drivers and counts on them as friends, confidantes, advisors and, in some cases, objects of affection. Her fixation with the buses and drivers exasperates and embarrasses her family, however, and Rachel finds it easiest to immerse herself in her own life in order to aviod having to visit Beth and be confronted with her lifestyle. The book begins with Rachel finally feeling guilty enough to pay a visit and ride the buses for an afternoon with Beth. By the end of the day, Rachel has agreed to ride the buses with Beth for a year. The rest of the book follows Rachel's journey with her sister, her burgeoning familiarity with the ins and outs of mental retardation, and her growing familiarity with and respect for the labrynth of issues surrounding care and support of people with disabilities. Riding the Bus With My Sister does not disappoint because it does not fall back on the trite notion that people with mental retardation are "God's true angels" (a sentiment which frustrates Rachel) or that they are sweet, happy people who, like children, have no adult hopes or desires. Also, at times Beth can be rude, obnoxious, and self-centered, which challenges Rachel to deal with her feelings of anger toward her sister. I recommend Riding the Bus With My Sister to all readers because of its honesty, its inspiring look at independence, and its examination of what unconditional love can really mean: 4 out of 4 Bananas!