When I was sent a copy of this by Hachette/Wren and Rook in exchange for review (ages ago! I’m sorry – it’s taken me forever!) I had no idea it was non-fiction. I’m not normally a non-fiction reader, but I decided after a friend gave me a non-fiction book to read that I really should read more non-fiction, so it ended up being a bonus that when I did pick this up I discovered it was a true story.
That said – how sad on so many levels that it is. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves or give anything away.
One teenager in a skirt. One teenager with a lighter. One moment that changes both their lives forever.
If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Richard and Sasha would never have met. Although they live in the same city, they are from radically different worlds. But one single reckless act changes both of their lives forever.
Richard and Sasha don’t know each other. The only contact they have is a few minutes each day on the 57 bus. They are not even aware of the others existence. Until the day Richard sets fire to Sasha’s skirt. This book charts the events leading up to, surrounding and following that day for both of them.
Sasha identifies as agender, and one of the things I really liked was the inclusion of a chapter detailing and explaining different phrases and terms which may be used in conversations around gender and sexuality. It explains that it by no means covers all bases and that language changes, evolves and differs from person to person, but it’s an excellent starting point.
Because of the way the whole book is written, it didn’t feel at all out of place – some chapters are in list form, some more narrative, some take the form of letters or text messages, so it didn’t feel jarring or ‘stuck in’. It was informative without being either condescending or feeling too in depth and out of reach, and I felt this was true of the writing style throughout the book: it was incredibly easy to read, despite tackling some meaty subjects.
When Richard sets Sasha’s skirt on fire, the questions begin to build up for the reader as well as for those involved: was it intentional? Was it a hate crime or an act of stupidity? Was it peer pressure (there’s an excellent chapter on the way teen brains are wired and the very specific responses they have to taking risk, high pressure situations and decision making)?
When he is charged, they continue: would that have happened if he were white/well-off/from a different neighbourhood (some of the statistics about the way the justice system was set up/used/manipulated made my head hurt)? Should a teenager ever be tried as an adult and how should that be decided? And what of forgiveness?
While, on the surface, this is a book about Sasha and Richard, the incident on the 57 bus that throws them together and the impact this has on them in the years to come, it’s really about so much more than that. Covering gender, race, class and the so-called ‘rich/poor divide’, prejudice, equality and the US justice system, this is a book that will make you think. It left me feeling frustrated, impotent and angry (that’s a good thing by the way!), as while it is based in America and therefore centred on American systems, laws and culture, much of it is all too applicable here as well.
Meticulously researched and compiled, Dashka Slater has used a great range of sources (interviews, letters, social media, videos etc.) from a variety of people (those involved on both ‘sides’ and their wider family, friends and communities) alongside relevant national data, statistics and trends to highlight the complexities of not just this specific case, but the wider issues surrounding it.
Clearly and concisely written, here is a book for exploring grey areas, questioning the norm, challenging the status quo and opening up debate. A compelling and important read and an excellent addition to any YA library/bookshelf.