Sasha and Richard could not have been more different. In November 2013, Sasha, an agender teen from a middle-class neighborhood on their way home from private school and Richard, an African-American teen who was back in public school after a stay at a group home, were both passengers on the 57 bus as it made its way through Oakland, California. Known for being a prankster, Richard had a lighter, and as Sasha slept, Richard flicked the lighter near Sasha’s skirt after being egged on by his friends. Richard thought Sasha’s skirt would merely smolder and go out, but the skirt caught fire and Sasha was left with third degree burns over what doctors estimated to be 22 percent of their body.
Richard was arrested the following day, and in interviews, he admitted that while he didn’t really know why he lit the fire (“Being stupid,” he said), he was homophobic. The district attorney’s office charged Richard with two felonies that contained a hate-crime clause; if convicted, he could be in prison for the rest of his life.
Author Dashka Slater could have written a sensationalist story torn from the headlines about a hate crime, but The 57 Bus carefully tells the story of Sasha and Richard’s backgrounds, the incident on the bus, the court proceedings and sentencing, and questions the ideas of gender, good and evil, and victim and perpetrator. The story raises awareness about the violence committed towards transgender people as well as deep flaws in the criminal justice system. The 57 Bus has a lot to teach readers about the cultural, gender, and racial differences in people and is a reminder that anybody’s life can change in an instant.