Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Memoir: Riding the Bus With My Sister

One of my book groups recently discussed RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, a memoir by Rachel Simon published in 2002. I had heard a lot about this book - buzz, as they say - over the past couple of years. The book received a lot of critical acclaim and was made into a TV movie starring Rosie O'Donnell. It was especially prominent in the media locally here in Delaware, since the author is from Philadelphia. With all of this attention, I was interested in reading the book but somehow never got around to it - maybe because it had been over-hyped.

There was a good reason for all that hype. RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER was entertaining, compelling, and informative. It met my highest standard - I was sorry to finish the book and didn't want it to end.

Simon's memoir focuses on her relationship with her mentally handicapped sister, Beth. Beth lives in a nearby city and spends her days riding the buses. This odd preoccupation baffles Rachel and the rest of her family. The book begins with Beth asking Rachel to accompany her on the buses periodically for a year. Simon alternates between the present, as she's riding the buses with Beth and learning about her world, and the past, when they and their sister and brother were children. This approach brings great insight to the lives of both Rachel and Beth and connects their past experiences to their present relationship and their different lifestyles.

Besides Beth and Rachel, the bus drivers are the other stars of this memoir. Both Rachel and the reader grow to understand Beth's attraction to the buses as we're introduced to some of her favorite drivers. They're philosophers, teachers, and friends, filled with compassion and insights that are unexpected in the mundane world of bus riding. It's fascinating to see the warm and supportive community that Beth has found among "her" drivers.

I was also fascinated to see a glimpse of the lives of people with mental handicaps. I've never known anyone who's mentally handicapped, and it's a topic rarely discussed in the media. I appreciated the inner look into the world of group homes, social services, and the insider's view of prejudice.

The memoir is not merely a story of riding buses and handicaps, though. Rachel shares her innermost thoughts and feelings, as well as memories of a less-than-ideal childhood, so that we join her on her personal journey of growth as she learns important life lessons from Beth and the drivers. This book reminded me of why I like memoirs so much.

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