Riding the Bus with My Sister: A True Life Journey

by Rachel Simon

Paperback, 2003




Plume (2003), Edition: Reissue, 296 pages


Biography & Autobiography. Family & Relationships. New Age. Nonfiction. HTML: A "heartwarming, life-affirming" memoir of a relationship with an intellectually disabled sibling: "Read this book. It might just change your life" (Boston Herald). Beth is a spirited woman with an intellectual disability who lives intensely and often joyfully, and spends most of her days riding the buses in Pennsylvania. The drivers, a lively group, are her mentors; her fellow passengers, her community�??though some display less patience or kindness than others. Her sister, Rachel, a teacher and writer, camouflages her emotional isolation by leading a hyperbusy life. But one day, Beth asks Rachel to accompany her on public transportation for an entire year�??and Rachel accepts. This wise, funny, deeply affecting book is the chronicle of that remarkable time, as Rachel learns how to live in the moment, how to pay attention to what really matters, how to change, how to love�??and how to slow down and enjoy the ride. Weaving in anecdotes and memories of terrifying maternal abandonment, fierce sisterly loyalty, and astonishing forgiveness, Rachel Simon brings to light a world that is almost invisible to many people, finds unlikely heroes in everyday life, and, without sentimentality, wrestles with her own limitations and portrays Beth as the endearing, feisty, independent person she is. "With tenderness and fury, heartbreak and acceptance . . . Simon comes to the inescapable conclusion that we are all riders on the bus, and on the bus we are all the same." �??Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Oc… (more)


½ (180 ratings; 3.8)

User reviews

LibraryThing member caitlinef
I found this memoir captivating and heartbreaking. The author writes of her experiences riding the public bus system all day for a year, as a gift to her mentally ill sister. Rachel tries to deal with her sister Beth's impatient, rude, and stubborn nature, in an attempt to learn about the illness,
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and about Beth. Along this journey, Rachel is faced with an inner struggle, as she can not understand how her sister can be so open to people, while she buries herself in work and hides from forming real relationships. Through many fights and misunderstandings, the two sisters eventually learn to accept each other for who they really are, despite their differences. This memoir has a good message, however it is hard to get into, and can be dull at times. Rachel comes off as self- centered and annoying in several cases, but the story is worth reading if you have a sister.
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LibraryThing member kathysoper
Scholarly, emotionally stunted older sister spends a year getting to know her mentally disabled sibling through shared journeys on the public transit system. Beautiful writing, beautiful meaning.
LibraryThing member touchthesky
I enjoyed the flashbacks, that were written in italics, better than the *current* story. The book is full of insight and enlightening moments that should be shared by all. However, I felt that the story was more about Rachel than Beth. Rachel's writing probably didn't have the same affect as on me,
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since I have family members with cognitive disabilities...but not a sibling. But, Rachel informs us about many life lessons that all of us should learn. A very interesting read.
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LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
This is a memoir that reads like a novel - in a good way. Ms. Simon has interwoven her year riding the bus with her sister, who is mentally disabled, with memories of her past and her family. Both narratives serve to enrich and shed light on each other. This is as much a book about Ms. Simon's own
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growth as it is about her sister, Beth. And really, isn't that what people are in the end - who they are because of who they spend time with, who they live with and around. A very rewarding read.
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LibraryThing member debnance
What a great bus ride! Did Beth ever turn the tables on Rachel! Rachel agrees to meet up with Beth every month and ride the buses with her, something Beth loves to do. Beth is mentally disabled and Rachel feels she will be helping her sister. And she does, in a way. But, more, Rachel learns from
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Beth and from Beth's mentors, the bus drivers, the really important things in life that Beth knows and Rachel has always missed.
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LibraryThing member lkernagh
Winner of the 2003 American Book Award, Riding the Bus With My Sister is a memoir that grew out of a request made by Beth, Rachel's sister. Beth is a woman in her late 30's, born with mental disabilities and spends her days - and schedules her life around - riding the buses in her Pennsylvania
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city. What started out as a one day adventure for Rachel to write an article for a newspaper about Beth's bus riding became, at Beth's request, a 12 month journey, a few days a month, where Rachel would put her busy -and empty - life schedule on hold to visit Beth and ride the buses with her.

Over the course of that year, Rachel gets to know: the bus drivers that come to represent Beth's life coaches; Beth's care workers/aides that are part of the system that supports Beth's independent living as a disabled individual; and Beth's boyfriend, Jesse. Seeing the world through Beth's eyes is a challenging and at times frustrating experience for Rachel who is also struggling to find meaning in her own life. Interspersed between the chapters of this year long journey are chapters written in italicizes - flashbacks to Rachel and Beth's childhood years.

For me, the flashbacks help provide context for the relationship Beth has with her family but I preferred the chapters of the conversations with the bus drivers and Rachel's own journey of self realization. The information Rachel gleans from her research on "mental age", mental disabilities and self-determination are basic backgrounders for anyone new to this information. Rachel's growing realization of Beth's life - that she has a network of friends and a community of support - serves a greater purpose: to try and draw attention to and remove some of the existing stereotypes of individuals with what are classified as 'mild' mental disabilities.

An interesting and different type of memoir containing some good life lessons that has been sitting on my TBR bookcase since September 2009. Overall, I am glad I pulled this one off the shelf and finally got around to reading it.
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LibraryThing member WinterFox
One of the worst kinds of literature, to my mind, are the ones where your main character is a busy person, trying to succeed, doing their best to make the most of their lives, and then they are exposed to wise old sage / intelligent animal / precocious child / disabled veteran. And then they learn
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the true value of life, and hurrah, hurrah, their minds are forever changed for the better, and they love the world. Urgh, the trite pastiness of it. And then those books end up super popular, and you hear about them everywhere: this will change your life! You just sigh internally. I picked up this book because my mom recommended it, and she usually has good taste, but I look at the blurbs on the cover ("it touched my soul" - Rosie O'Donnell) and I read the first twenty pages, and I worry.

But - and thankfully, there's a but - the story doesn't pan out that way. This memoir details the year that Rachel Simon spent with her sister with mild mental retardation around on the buses in her sister's small Pennsylvania city. A few years before the time detailed in the book, Beth, her sister, took up riding around the buses of the town all day, chatting with the drivers and learning all the routes and the timetables, to the degree where she serves as a backup resource for new employees, getting access to the driver's room, etc. Not all of the drivers take to her, but enough do, and she feels as if she's found her place.

Rachel had not been close with her sister for some time, but when Beth reached out to her and invited her to spend a year riding with the buses with her, she decided to take time out of her schedule to take up the offer, alongside her classes and writing. The memoir goes along month by month, for the days she's out there with her sister, with the chapters for each month generally including some riding around with a particular driver on the bus, each with different views on the world, jocular, heavy, contemplative, religious, trying to help Beth, or not; and then also some time off the bus, and then finally about the history of the Simon family and dealing with Beth through the years.

It's actually a very easy read, and the different profiles of the bus drivers, intelligent, thoughtful folk (for the ones that get profiled; Simon notes they're not all like that), add some nice variety. But the most interesting part of it is Simon's coming to grapple with her sister and her life, and what it means for her to be a good sister, and a more open person. Simon turned away from her sister some when she was growing up, but she didn't even really know what it meant for people to have the sort of disability her sister has. She hadn't done the research on it until during the year in question, and she hadn't tried to understand her sister's place in life, why she wanted to ride the buses, the level of self-determination she has.

The overall trend in care for those with mental retardation has been to give them more control over their lives, and the book shows both the plusses and minuses of this system - Beth makes her decision about how to make her life fulfilling, but she makes her own bad decisions, too, and it's hard for her sister to watch. But she does get a lot more respect for her sister, and eventually, the feeling becomes more mutual. Beth's fiercely independent, but they do manage to make it work out between them, so that they each have their place with the other.

I actually did come to enjoy this book after the beginning. It's a more complex story, written clearly and with enough emotion to become invested. I learned much about the toughness of the situation, the complexity of living with someone with a real cognitive disability, but that they're really still a complete, full person. Realizing that is hard even when you're in the situation; even with my mom being a special ed teacher, I have a hard time remembering this sometimes.

Anyway, it is an interesting, informative, and, yes, heart-warming read. But not in that bad way. In a better one.
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LibraryThing member lahochstetler
I expected to like this book much better than I did. This is the story of Rachel Simon and her developmentally-disabled sister, Beth. Beth spends her days riding city transit buses. In an effort to become closer to her sister Rachel decides to spend time with her, riding the bus. Doing so forces
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Rachel to come to terms with all of her complicated emotions regarding her sister and the rest of the family. The Simon family certainly has a troubled past. The girls were abandoned by their mother. Really, though, the book is mostly about the adult relationship between the two. And at the end of the day, I didn't find that relationship as interesting as I expected to. Basically, Rachel discovers that having intellectual disabilities didn't prevent her sister from having a full range of feelings and behaviors. A big part of this book seems to be Rachel coming to terms with the fact that it's okay if her relationship with Beth is not all sunshine and rainbows. More interesting was Rachel's effort to come to terms with the philosophy of self-determination, which guides the care of Beth and others like her. Beth is allowed to make her own decisions, even if they aren't very good ones. The ethical issues surrounding this are interesting, even if they aren't the main purpose of this book. And that ended up being the main flaw of the book for me. The issues became more interesting than the people living them.
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LibraryThing member Judiex
Rachel and Beth Simon, born eleven months apart, were the middle children of a family with four children. From the time of her birth, their parents knew Beth was different and, after seeking a lot of medical attention, learned that she had mild mental retardation. They raised her to do as much as
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she could while letting her siblings know that they were not going to hide her and that each of them would also have responsibility for her.
That was easier said than done. The family was seriously broken by divorce and Beth was not easy to help: She knew what she wanted and insisted that everything be done her way, even if it wasn’t the best way for her. The mental health professionals were aiming to provide their clients with the right to make their own decisions. Beth dressed in very colorful, casual clothing that was inappropriate to the circumstances and the weather and was very loud and opinionated. She would always stand out in a group..
When the book opens, Beth and Rachel, in their late thirties, hadn’t seen each other for a few years. Once a week Rachel would send a card and Beth would send Rachel several notes in return. Rachel agreed to visit Beth every month and learn more about both Beth and Beth’s life. “Who was Beth? How did they grow apart?” She learns more than she expected.
Beth lived independently in a subsidized apartment and had no interest in getting a job. She had been fired from previous ones, often deliberately sabotaging her employment because she didn’t like the job or other things were more important. She. spent her entire day riding buses. “Within weeks [of moving to her apartment] she could navigate anywhere within a ten-mile radius, and, by studying the shifting constellations of characters and the schedules posted weekly in the bus terminal, she could calculate who would be at precisely with intersection at any moment of the day.” She staked out friendships all over the city, weaving her own traveling community.”
Beth was very much aware of and accepting of the people she saw except if they were mean to her. As Rachel and Beth were walking down the street one day, Rachel saw a scruffy looking man “I avert my eyes, figuring as always, that it’s better to ignore homeless people than to get a request for a handout.. As we pass him, Beth says, “Hi, John.” He looks directly at her and nods back. A moment beyond, I ask, “You know him?” “Yeah he lives on the street. He’s nice.” Rachel realized that Beth knew all these people and, while she turned away, ready to dismiss them, Beth told her about each of them. Several years ago, one of my daughters who worked with homeless people told me the same thing. Instead of ignoring them, look at them, smile, and say “Hello.” That little bit of respect is sometimes all they seek. What happens to street people when businesses refuse to let them use their toilets? Where can they go?
RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER opens the window of bus drivers and their world. Flashbacks reveal family history.
Many people and drivers were friendly and helpful. They exchanged gifts and visited each other in the hospital. (The book includes recipes from Jack for Chicken Pot Pie, Red Beet Eggs and Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake.)
However, some drivers...call her ‘The Pest.’ When they see Beth at a stop ahead, they cruise right by, gaze glued to the road. Some riders warn them, crying out ‘Keep going!’ whey they spy her waiting on the curb, and, if she climbs on, they bleat in her face, ‘Shut up! Go home!’”
Rachel realized, “I had long since grasped that the qualifications for a bus driver can and often must extend well beyond operations skills. But I had not realized that drivers might also be called upon to assume the role, at a moment’s notice, of emergency caregiver – or bereavement counselor, confidante, inspirational speaker, and all-around healer of life’s slings and arrows.” She asked one, “So many of you drivers...seem to be philosophers, anthropologists, spiritual guides, commentators on what it means to be human, and how to be human a little better.” The response: “What do you do when you’re a bus driver? You spend time with people and you sit and you think....I think a lot in here about life.”
Tim wanted to be an archeologist. “Looking back in time was very exciting to me. But looking forward is more challenging – nothing unfolds as you anticipate, and it’s the small things, not the huge geologic shifts, than make or break you.”
Rodolpho: had great plans: He built a house for himself and his wife, wanted to make lots of money, got a Dodge Ram, took flying lessons. He worked so hard that he was never home. His wife divorced him and he ran out of money. Then he met another woman. “Now it’s making Sabrina smile. That’s my idea of success now: not thinking of what I can get, but thinking of what I can give.”
Estella told her: “They’re my customers, and that means something to me. I try to make them feel at home before they get home.”
When one of the drivers invited Rachel and Beth to join him and his family at the beach, neither Beth nor Rachel want to get a bathing suit. The driver responded: “I’m asking you to loosen up. Writers need to experience what others experience to get a true understanding of life, correct? I want to give you more than a glimpse of fun – I ant you to feel it. Don’t worry about how you look, none of us are beauties.”
Many of these situations are familiar to people who are regular bus riders. Others never even consider the people they see informally every day. RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER opens our eyes to that invisible world and all the treasures it has to offer. Rachel learned a lot about Beth and her world as well as about herself. While she got very frustrated at times, she saw how other peoples’ reactions helped her understand her own and recognized some very positive aspects of Beth.
RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER was well-written and honest. I cared about the characters. It was made into a movie with Rosie O’Donnell doing a spot-on job portraying Beth. The book, though, is much better. It was reprinted in 2013 with 50 additional pages of essays from Beth and Rachel. Unfortunately, the copy I read is the earlier version.
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LibraryThing member mom2acat
This memoir follows one year in the lives of Rachel and her developmentally disabled sister Beth, (or as she calls herself, Cool Beth.) Beth spends hers days riding the city buses, and in an effort to get closer to her sister and understand her better, Rachel agrees to spend a year riding the buses
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with Beth (one or two days per week.)

As she rides the buses with Beth, and gets to know the drivers, she discovers during the year she is learning as much about herself as she is about her sister, and that deep down, the so called "normal" people are not that much different from people like Beth. This book also looks at the way society treats people like Beth; although she has many friends among the drivers, some are less tolerate and not very kind to Beth, and the other passengers are not always nice to her either.

But this book is not just about riding buses; the author also looks back to their childhood and how certain events shaped them both, for better or worse.

I really enjoyed this book; the author was admirable of her sister, but also honest about the frustrations with dealing with her. I was kind of sad when this book came to an end; I liked Rachel and Cool Beth and I enjoyed being a part of their world for a little while. I also enjoyed the stories of the drivers and how they related to Beth.

I could also relate to Rachel; I too have a sister who is intellectually disabled. She is not as loud or as flamboyant as Beth, but I could especially relate to the times when Rachel felt frustrated with her.

This book was also made into a movie a few years ago by Hallmark, starring Rosie O'Donnell and Andie McDowel.
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LibraryThing member PrescottKris
I remember when this movie came out wanting to see it, unfortunatly I didn't get to watch it. Reading the book was good though. Still hunting for the movie.
LibraryThing member Hhaddad1
This memoir is about Rachel and her sister Beth, who has an intellectual disability. Beth spends her time riding the buses around their home town. When Rachel and Beth grow apart, Beth asks Rachel to ride the buses with her everyday for a year. To her own amazement, Rachel actually becomes closer
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with Beth during this time and with the people in Beth's life. This memoir narrows in on the struggles and rewards that having a family member with a disability brings.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Nonfiction / memoir

Rachel's sister Beth has mental retardation. She lives in a subsidized apartment, has a boyfriend (also with mental retardation), but has no job - except to ride the city's buses all day, every day. Beth remembers drivers' birthdays, their coffee and lunch preferences. The year
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Rachel spends riding the bus with her sister is a year of personal growth - for Rachel and Beth. The experience opens Rachel's heart and teaches her to risk heartache. Excellent and moving.
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LibraryThing member homeschoolmimzi
I liked this book a lot. I enjoy reading people's thoughts about something life changing. I found it to be honest, endearing and interesting to read.
LibraryThing member heidi.donner
A great memoir documenting a year in the author's life as she tags along with her sister who is mentally challenged. This would be a good book to introduce students to the differences they all have and to bring up topics that may be hard to cover. Good for students above second grade.
LibraryThing member CDWilson27
This is the true story of Rachel, a young adult professional taking time to slow down and immerse herself in the world of her sister, a developmentally disabled adult. Like many with non-visible disabilities, Beth has a cadre of social service providers who meet with her regularly to assess and try
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to meet her needs. When Rachel attends one of these meetings, she becomes aware of how Beth and her case managers keep her on track. Rachel doesn't understand many of Beth's quirks, but over time she begins to appreciate them for themselves. Beth's life is Beth's life, and Rachel makes conscious choices to share it.
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LibraryThing member Berly
From the publisher: Beth is a spirited woman with mental retardation who spends nearly every day riding the buses in her Pennsylvania city. The drivers, a lively group, are her mentors; her fellow passengers are her community. Beth, who lives independently and has a boyfriend, is a joyful,
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endearing, and feisty individual. Her single sister, Rachel, a writer and professor, masks her emotional isolation and loneliness behind her hyperbusy schedule. When Beth asks Rachel to accompany her on the buses for one year, they take a transcendent journey that changes Rachel's life in incredible ways, leads her to accept her sister at long last--and teaches her to slow down and enjoy the ride.

I thought this was a poignant story and the author learned at least as much about herself as she did about her sister. The bus drivers were interesting individuals, each with their own backstory and take on life. Overall, a pretty good read!
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LibraryThing member Whisper1
Riding the Bus With My Sister by Rachel Simon

Now an adult, Rachel has always been embarrassed by her "mildly retarded" (her words) sister. Almost twins, they laugh at the fact that there is one month of the year when they are the same age. Their mother was a strong force in insisting Beth be
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treated equally/fairly.

Beth made a wish to Rachel. She rides the buses all day long throughout her Pennsylvania city. She asks Rachel for a year of her time to ride the buses with Beth to see the people and world that she sees.

Rachel overlooks the loud diatribes that Beth rattles throughout the bus so that all can hear. Beth is treated with respect by many of the drivers, a few are tired of her constant talking and the fact that she seems to pick particular male bus drivers as possible partners.

As the year ends, Rachel comes away with tremendous sense of wonderment and pride at Beth's ability to make friends, to remember what they like, and each birthday give them a small present. She notices Beth can sometimes let nasty comments wash away, and then, there are times that Beth becomes VERY angry and over and over again talks about revenge.

This is one of my favorite books thus far!
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LibraryThing member hobbitprincess
For the most part, I found this book to be interesting, if a little slow in places. I worked in the special education world until very recently, with a population that is much more severely affected than Beth was. The young adults that I taught were nonverbal and completely unable to care for
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themselves or live independently. All through the book, I thought about how the parents of my students would have loved having their child as independent as Beth. I understood a lot of what was happening and what Rachel was learning. I do have some issues with self-advocation, but that is nothing that is geared towards the author or this book. I understand that it is law. It's hard to have laws that apply equally to such a diverse group of individuals. I have heard more than one parent share a bad experience that involves the laws Rachel learned about. I would recommend any reader to understand that there are adults out there that you never see, who have to have constant care. They are entitled to a free education, and that is where I was involved. I learned that a lot of people think of those with Downs and those individuals who compete in Special Olympics when they think of self-contained special education. Please have a heart and think of those who have severe and profound intellectual disabilities. Those families need all the love and support that your communities can give them.
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Original language


Original publication date

2002 (copyright)


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