Riding the Bus with My Sister

Riding the Bus with My Sister

by

Rachel Simon

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Riding the Bus with My Sister: 33. December: Swans and Witches Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Rachel takes Beth for a makeover, a holiday gift from Bailey and Rick, at “the most patient—and purple—salon in town.” Bailey hopes that it will lift Beth’s self-esteem, but Beth isn’t excited for it, since it will mean taking an afternoon off from the buses. While Beth refuses to let the beauticians wax her face, she agrees to a haircut, new hair color, new lipstick, and manicure. Olivia visits and compliments Beth, who doesn’t seem interested. Rachel thinks that Beth will probably reverse the makeover and go back to her old style in less than a day.
Rachel, Bailey, and Rick don’t expect to change Beth’s appearance or life forever through her makeover. However, they do hope that it will help her see that she can choose to live her life differently, if she wants to. But yet again, she rejects the possibility of change and affirms that she’s living exactly the life she wants. Even if Beth’s loved ones find her stubbornness frustrating, they know that Beth will ultimately make her own decisions, and they support those decisions for the sake of Beth’s self-determination.
Themes
Disability, Access, and Self-Determination Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Growth, Change, and Morality Theme Icon
While Beth tells Olivia to go out with Cliff, Olivia does her monthly check-in, asking Beth if she’s happy with the services she’s receiving. Olivia takes a photo of Beth with Rachel, but Beth doesn’t smile—she doesn’t want to look glamorous. Her mood improves as soon as she gets back on the buses, and all afternoon, she’s “almost silly with happiness.” In particular, she’s excited for the holidays: she has written cards and bought gifts for her family and all the bus drivers. She gives Rachel her gift, but Rachel says that she wants to wait and open it later.
The makeover does little to change Beth’s mind—she has already found her look, community, and vocation in life, and she intends to stick to her choices. Meanwhile, her eager gift-giving is a reminder of how deeply she values her wide network of friends and acquaintances. Even if she lacks empathy for them when they most need it, she still clearly does care about them in her own unique way.
Themes
Disability, Access, and Self-Determination Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Community vs. Individualism Theme Icon
Growth, Change, and Morality Theme Icon
At night, Rachel is delighted that everything is going so well with Beth, and that they haven’t had any arguments. In the morning, Beth doesn’t even go to the living room and wake up Rachel, like usual. Rachel finds Beth in her bedroom, writing thank-you cards, with her hair back to its old style. Rachel thanks Beth for the extra bit of sleep and compliments her for writing the thank-yous. But Beth rudely replies that she had no other choice but to write the cards, because Rachel was in the living room. Beth also says that she only let Rachel keep sleeping because Jacob told her she had to. Rachel asks what’s wrong, and Beth says she doesn’t know.
Beth makes a concerted effort to treat Rachel more respectfully, but she also clearly resents having to do so. This is both a clear sign of progress and an indication of how hard it will be for her to genuinely change. On the one hand, Beth is finally taking concrete steps toward change, but on the other, she expects to be rewarded and accommodated during the process—which shows that she doesn’t understand that she’s actually supposed to change for the sake of others. In other words, she acts as though she’s being forced to change, rather than choosing it herself.
Themes
Disability, Access, and Self-Determination Theme Icon
Growth, Change, and Morality Theme Icon
Rachel asks Beth for a towel, so that she can take a shower, and Beth replies, “I can’t stop you.” Then, Rachel’s “dark voice” clicks on—she’s so frustrated to have spent a year trying to understand Beth, only to have this kind of childish conflict again. Controlling the “dark voice,” Rachel calmly tells Beth that her comment wasn’t kind, and that it’s customary for hosts to offer their guests certain amenities like towels. Rachel asks for a towel again, but Beth gives her the same response. Rachel blurts out, “I hate you,” and runs to the shower. After she gets out, she apologizes and admits that she doesn’t hate Beth, just Beth’s rude behavior. But Rachel also says that Beth doesn’t seem to want her visiting, so maybe she should stop.
Rachel and Beth’s argument over the towel speaks strikes at the most fundamental issues in their relationship. Namely, Rachel still needs more patience in order to cope with Beth, while Beth still simply doesn’t understand that her behavior affects other people, who have rights and feelings just like her own. In fact, even after Rachel explains the general principle behind her request—that hosts have certain obligations to their guests—Beth continues to view her request as an unfair demand. Rachel starts to seriously question whether her love for Beth is strong enough to overcome this impasse, and whether anything will ever make Beth take other people into account.
Themes
Disability, Access, and Self-Determination Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Growth, Change, and Morality Theme Icon
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Rachel and Beth visit Max, but they barely talk all day. Rachel realizes that this is how her time with Beth will end. It’s time to return to ordinary life—Rachel feels “free at last” but also more confident and social than before. When her neighbors all light candles on the street outside her apartment, for instance, she joins them for the first time.
Rachel realizes that she may have hit the limit of her ability to help and connect with Beth. But it’s impossible for her to know what’s truly responsible for this limit—it could be Beth’s disability, Rachel’s own impatience, or their relationship as sisters. Thus, Rachel prepares to end her yearlong journey full of new wisdom and confidence but unfortunately no closer to Beth.
Themes
Love and Family Theme Icon
Growth, Change, and Morality Theme Icon