Reading Group Discussion Guide for
Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon
1. The memoir opens with Beth's annual Plan of Care review, and Beth's request of Rachel to accompany her on bus rides for an entire year. Discuss Rachel and Beth's relationship at the outset of the book: What kind of dynamic do they have? What kind of a role does Rachel play in Beth's life at this point (and vice versa)? What obstacles to their relationship are evident from the first? What do you think was the motivation for Beth's request? Did their tension reflect tensions that you have felt with family members? To whom did you relate to more, Rachel or Beth?
2. Why does Beth love riding the buses? What does she gain from this ad hoc community? Does our understanding of her devotion to the buses deepen over the course of the book, and if so, how does Simon make that happen? Do we come to certain realizations before the character of Rachel does? Examine your own reactions as you read, and when and why they changed. Have you known other people who are devoted to an activity that you do not understand? How did your understanding of Beth's bus riding affect your thoughts about those other people?
3. How do the italicized sections of the book, which relay Rachel and Beth's family history, inform the present-day chapters? Describe the tone of these sections, and the way in which Simon manages to convey their tragic and convoluted past. How does she deal with emotionally charged scenes from the past, and how do they inform our understanding of not only present-day situations and events, but also present-day relationships?
4. Discuss our perspective of Rachel's mother throughout the book: from her panic and despair over the baby Beth's mental disability, to her growing alienation from her children and husband, to her emotional collapse and marriage to "the bad man." How do we view her reunion with her children when they are grown? How does Simon deal with the way each child shifts from anger to forgiveness? At what points do you sympathize with her mother and at what points do you judge her? Discuss the extent to which this is due to the way Simon writes about her mother. How does the story of Rachel's mother shed light on other mothers you might have known who have reached the breaking point with their families?
5. Consider and discuss Rachel and Beth's father: his departure from the family soon after their move to Pennsylvania; his return when their mother kicks Laura, Rachel and Max out of the house; and his tumultuous relationship with Beth, both before and after his remarriage. To what degree do we see him as a sympathetic character? Compare his ability to come to terms with Beth's disability when she was a child with his gradually becoming worn down by their relationship in her adolescence and twenties. Compare and contrast his actions with the actions of their mother. Are there ways in which either is more or less adept than the other? If you know other parents of children with special needs, how do their experiences compare with the experiences of Beth's parents?
6. Examine the relationship between all of the children growing up: Laura, Rachel, Beth and Max. Compare their relationships with each other as children to their relationships with each other as adults. What has changed, and what has remained the same? How supportive of one another were they as children, compared to their lives as adults? How did their dynamic shift over time? What do you think were the direct causes? Would things have been different if the family had stayed together?
7. Discuss the way that Rachel, Laura, and Max were affected by being the siblings of a person with special needs. How much of a role do you think Beth's disability played in their growth as individuals? How did their parents' feelings toward Beth affect the ability of the other siblings to accept her? What are some of the emotions that Rachel reveals she felt about her sister, starting with her being a little child, then a teenager and young adult, and finally a woman entering middle-age? What is the impact of her parents' own difficulties on her sense of her own responsibility toward Beth? Examine Simon's approach to the times when she was not feeling positive about her sister. Discuss the device of the "dark voice." Have you known other siblings of people with disabilities? How do their emotions and concerns mirror those of their parents, and how are they distinct or unique?
8. Discuss Jacob, the Christian bus driver who would have Beth "do unto others as you would have done to you." Consider how we see his role in Beth's life, which goes beyond bus driver to become a true friend (one who takes her to the beach with his family, and cares for her before and after her operation). What kind of a person is Jacob? What makes him likeable, and what keeps him from being an overly sentimental person, or "character," in the book? Compare his role in Beth's life with the friendship he begins to form in Rachel's life. He is clearly on a spiritual journey. Are other characters in the book also on a quest to live a more spiritual life? What is the role of spirituality in the book?
9. Compare and contrast the different bus drivers with one another: Claude, Jacob, Happy Timmy, Rodolpho, Rick, Henry, Estella, Crazy Bailey, Jack, Bert, Cliff and Melanie. Who are your favorites? Which personalities are more vivid than others? What does each contribute to Beth's daily rides? Describe Beth's "falling out" with men such as Claude, Henry, and Cliff. Do we see these men as sympathetic characters or slightly villainous for their lack of patience? Discuss how your perceptions of bus drivers were affected by the characters you "met" over the year. What do their experiences teach us?
10. Now consider Rachel's relationships with the bus drivers. How does her need for their insight and kindness compare to Beth's? How do her relationships with them differ from Beth's, or do they at all? What do you think the bus drivers gain from their friendships with Beth, and subsequently, Rachel (for example, Jacob, Rick or Rodolpho)? How do we see their relationships progress from the opening of the book to its end?
11. Discuss Beth's romantic relationship with Jesse: How would you describe their dynamic? How does their relationship compare with what you know of Sam and Rachel's relationship? Is mental disability portrayed as being a significant factor in Beth and Jesse's compatibility? What did you think of the way Rachel's family handled Beth's burgeoning sexuality, and Beth's annual reminder to Rachel: "Its TEn years since I cant Have a baBy?" Did learning about Beth and Jesse's relationship affect the way you view adults with disabilities? How?
12. What kind of a man is Jesse? What kind of a role does he play in Rachel's life, let alone Beth's? What kind of "character" does he play in the story that unfolds throughout the memoir? Discuss his and Beth's relationship in light of their racial differences, and how they handle their commitment to one another in the face of social opposition. What is the effect on the reader of Jesse riding his bicycle on the periphery of scenes that haven't been about him? What do you think of Jesse's definition of love?
13. Why does Rachel struggle with self-determination? How did it develop in the community at large, and why was Rachel unaware of it until she rode with Beth? What is the role that self-determination plays in Beth's present-day life? Does Rachel's acceptance of it lead her to deal with her sister differently? Compare and contrast the way that Rachel dealt with Beth's "knock-out shot" with the way that Olivia would have dealt with it. What are your feelings about self-determination?
14. Discuss the symbol of the moon. When does it first appear as a symbol, and how does it develop over the course of the book? Examine the symbol of the mountain, which also appears throughout the book. Discuss the use of certain objects or natural phenomena within specific chapters: Beth's bus pass in "The Journey," the airplane in "The Dreamer," the snow in the sterilization section of "Lunch with Jesse," Jack's book in "The Loner," the ocean in "Be Not Afraid," the blue bus in "The Girlfriend," the outdoor candles in "Swans and Witches," and the rainstorm in "Beyond The Limits of the Sky."
15. Is the book enhanced by the inclusion of Beth's letters? How and why? What about Jack's recipes? The references to music?
16. Discuss the various explorations of language that occur throughout the book. What do you think about People First Language? The epithet that Rachel hears her classmates use in school? Did you find yourself questioning your own way of speaking, in the past or present? What is Beth's definition of "cool"? Why does Simon elaborate on Beth's three different meanings for "I don't know"? How does all of this discussion of language expand the larger themes of Beth's struggle for independence and Rachel's struggle to accept Beth?
17. Discuss the ramifications of Rachel's outburst near the culmination of the memoir, where she blurts out "I hate you," in response to Beth's surly, inhospitable demeanor. What does this heat-of-the-moment admission do to both sisters? What kind of change does it invoke in Beth's behavior, and what does it reveal to Rachel about her own feelings? How does it alter their relationship? Why did Simon include it?
18. Compare the annual "Plan of Care" review at the end of the book with the one at the beginning. What kind of progress or change has been made in the way Beth lives her life? What relationships have altered between the people in Beth's apartment? Discuss Rachel's revelations at this meeting and her reaction to Beth's curt "The year's over."
19. Describe the impact of the epilogue to the book, "A Year and a Half Later." What does it demonstrate about Rachel's transformation over the year? What progress has Beth made? How satisfying is this ending, for both the reader and Rachel? What kind of message does Simon leave us with, and how effective is her story as a medium for that message? How did you feel when you finished the final paragraph?
Author Q&A for
Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon
Is Beth still riding the bus?
Yes. In fact, most of Beth's life has remained the same since we rode together. She's still living in the same apartment, she's still with Jesse, and she's still friends with many of the same drivers, along with some new ones. There are some changes, though. Some of Beth's friendships with drivers, especially a few she's made since the book came out, have faded. Her city now has a transit center, so she doesn't have to wait outside at bus shelters nearly as much as we did. She's also begun to run errands from some of the elderly residents in her building, and has taken up some new activities like bowling. But the buses are still the center of her life.
How's her health? She had eye surgery in the book. Has her vision improved?
Beth had to have that same eye surgery twice more before it really worked out, but ever since her eye condition has been under control. She had a few other health issues, which I address in The House on Teacher's Lane. As of now, she seems healthy in every way.
How did Beth feel about the book?
Beth doesn't tend to think abstractly, so initially the book wasn't real to her until I put a copy in her hands. Then she felt a great sense of pride. She read the book right away (the first non-picture book she had ever read), and then re-read it to Jesse. She set up a book signing for me in the drivers' room. She carried the book around for months, drawing pictures on the Table of Contents, showing it to everyone she met, and memorizing the pages about Jesse – and Donny Osmond. If she met you, she'd ask if you'd read it.
What kind of reaction did Riding the Bus evoke from the public?
The book was very helpful to many people. I heard from thousands of people with disabilities, their families, and the people who work with them. Beth's story gave them hope that people with disabilities can live independent, self-determined lives, with friends in the community. My story gave siblings the reassurance that their own mix of feelings was not unique. I also heard from thousands of folks in the public and community transit industry, who told me, to my surprise, that my book was the first positive portrayal they'd seen of themselves in literature. In addition, I heard from people in the clergy and medical professions, who said the book helped them understand people with disabilities and their family members much better.
Were you surprised at all that happened with this book?
Completely. I wrote it hoping to tell a moving story. I never dreamed I would end up traveling around the country talking to huge groups of people, nor that there would be a movie. I still can't believe it.
Where does the book take place?
I'm sure you understand that I want Beth's life to stay quiet and private. If you have an idea about the location of the book, I hope you'll keep it to yourself.