Last Updated on November 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1679
Sasha was an agender teen in their final year at a “small private high school” at the time of the 57 bus attack. Sasha had recently come to realize their agender identity and usually wore a skirt—as they were doing on the day when, on the bus journey home, Richard set their skirt on fire. An aspiring poet, Sasha is fond of cats, their hair, and hugs; they dislike the concept of gender as a whole. This derives from an interest in language that began in childhood; by the time they were in high school, they were inventing languages and befriending other “conlangers,” or people interested in language creation. Sasha’s interest in languages was partially driven by their rejection of gendered language, and they eventually came out as genderqueer to their parents, stipulating that gender-neutral pronouns were preferred. The name “Sasha” is a chosen one, as Sasha was born Luke.
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Sasha is outspoken “once you get to know them” but is initially quiet and shy, having been diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child. They are extremely academic and classified as “one of the nerdy kids” at school.
Sasha comes from a middle-class family who live in the foothills and has had a generally privileged existence. After the fire, they suffered third-degree burns and had to be hospitalized. Surgeries and skin grafts followed. In the days after they returned to school, Sasha was quieter than before. While glad to have been the source of agender representation in the media, the circumstances were obviously regrettable.
Richard was a sixteen-year-old black boy attending the public Oakland High School when he carried out the attack on Sasha on the 57 bus.
The day after the attacks, Richard was arrested at school and charged with two felonies, each including a hate-crime clause—which would increase the lengths of any sentences given. He was charged as an adult, rather than as a juvenile, because of the severity of his offense.
As the book progresses, we come to learn more about Richard and what he was like as a person at the time that he carried out the attack on Sasha on the 57 bus. He was “good-looking” and light-skinned, “always smiling, always joking,” but with a tendency to be quiet and alert around strangers. His high school, Oakland High, was “right in the middle in almost every respect,” comprising students from all ethnic groups and backgrounds. However, only two thirds of its students generally managed to graduate, making it quite a different experience from Sasha’s supportive private school. In the past, he had lived in group homes and been arrested for fighting. His grades were poor and his attendance spotty, but he was sure he wasn’t “a bad kid” and willingly joined a program meant to help truant students get back on track. Others noted that he “wanted people to be happy” and tried hard to become part of Kaprice’s family.
Many elements affecting Richard were outside of his control. These included the murder of his friend Skeet, only one of many young black men shot in Oakland. While Richard enjoyed his jobs and tried to work hard, he simply could not concentrate on schoolwork. At one point he was robbed at gunpoint. Readers come to understand that Richard did not expect Sasha’s skirt to actually go up in flames, but thought it would be “a laugh” and that the skirt would only smolder briefly. We also discover that, while Richard admits that he is “homophobic,” his interpretation of this is not active hate, but simply a result of not understanding how people like Sasha relate to the world. His upbringing has shaped who he is.
Richard wrote a letter of apology to Sasha while incarcerated, followed by a longer one. Although this could not be sent because it contained an admission of guilt, in it, Richard asked for forgiveness and declared himself “a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake.”
Debbie is Sasha’s mother. The two have always had a close relationship, so Debbie tried very hard to “get [her] head around” Sasha’s announcement that they were genderqueer, recognizing that this meant a lot to her child. Debbie works as a bookkeeper at a private school and is outgoing, with “broad and comic” gestures.
At first, Debbie struggled with adapting to her child’s nonbinary identity, especially when Sasha, for example, complained that there was no gender-neutral bathroom or corrected relatives who used their old pronouns. She also worried about people giving Sasha “a hard time” because of their choice of clothing.
Karl is Sasha’s father. Shyer and quieter than his wife, he is “a former college radio DJ turned kindergarten teacher” and is gentle, thoughtful, and dryly witty. He has silvering hair and wears a rainbow friendship bracelet, indicative of the fact that he, like his wife, wants to maintain his close relationship with his child and understand Sasha’s gender expression. He admires Sasha’s willingness to speak up about their gender identity and believes their school provided an environment in which they could learn to become themselves. Sasha helped him understand the problems of the gender binary better, and he stopped dividing his kindergartners into “boys” and “girls,” dividing them alphabetically instead. Through Sasha’s exploration of themself, Karl learned more about his own relationship with the world.
As a young man, Karl suffered an assault by a group of men who had assumed he was gay, so he understood the potential for Sasha to be attacked because of the way they looked.
Jasmine is Richard’s mother. She gave birth to Richard at the age of fifteen and tried her hardest to be a good mother, taking her son to church and teaching him to be well-mannered around women. She ran “a tight ship” but worried about Richard—particularly after her sister, Savannah, was fatally shot in a car and her orphaned children moved in with the family. After this, Richard was afforded less attention, as Jasmine had to “scramble just to get the bills paid.” This made her fear that Richard would succumb to the dangers facing young black men in Oakland. She wanted him to have a career and go to college, knowing him to be a good kid, but was painfully aware that this would not be as straightforward for him as it might for a child like Sasha.
Andrew has been fast friends with Sasha since middle school. At that point in time, Andrew was living under his birth name, Samantha. Assigned female at birth, Andrew developed a crush on Sasha and the two became inseparable, but Andrew was beginning to feel uncomfortable about his gender. He “knew it was important to be pretty and cute, but . . . had no idea how to be those things.” When he first told his therapist he felt he was transgender, his therapist argued that he didn’t know what this meant. A year later, he told Sasha, who was accepting, and he began his gender transition upon entering high school.
Andrew is an important character not only because of what he represents thematically—part of a growing rejection of gender norms, stereotypes, and rigidity among the young—but also because it was their friendship with Andrew that first caused Sasha to begin questioning their own gender.
The attack on Sasha had a sobering effect on Andrew, as it made it clear what could happen to gender-nonconforming people.
Kaprice was Oakland High School’s attendance compliance officer. She “had a homegirl vibe,” and Richard was keen to join her program, which shocked Kaprice—Richard was aware he had been in trouble several times, but he wanted her help because he was not “a bad kid.” Kaprice was determined to help Richard after this, telling him that he would be able to get away with “absolutely nothing” after joining her program.
Born in East Oakland, Kaprice had seen the effects of crack cocaine and violence on students, particularly those in the area in which she grew up. As a young girl, she had little ambition, but those around her recognized her talent and encouraged her to pursue an education. When a former friend of hers, Lil’ Jerry, was murdered, she was galvanized to help troublesome kids become better in his honor. Her children were her “family,” and her office represented a safe zone for them.
Bill Du Bois
Bill Du Bois was Richard’s lawyer, a forty-year veteran of the Alameda County Courthouse who had represented other teenagers in similar situations. DuBois contested the court’s decision to try Richard as an adult and also argued that Richard had not known the real meaning of the word “homophobic” when he had used it—suggesting it simply meant Richard was not gay and that this was not in fact a hate crime.
Nemo identifies as genderfluid and uses they/them pronouns, like Sasha. The pair knew each other from Queer Club at school and, after an incident in which the two sheltered in a truck during a wildfire, “their relationship changed.” The two teenagers have “a platonic relationship . . . but with elements other people might consider romantic.” They are a couple, but in a way which reflects their modern way of relating to the world, as aromantic and asexual.
Jamal was a friend of Richard’s. On the day of the bus fire, he was sitting at the back of the bus when Richard got on. Tall and lanky, it was Jamal who first drew Richard’s attention to Sasha sleeping in their skirt on the bus. It was also Jamal who encouraged Richard to set Sasha’s skirt on fire. However, like Richard, Jamal did not really expect Sasha’s skirt to burn properly, as he shrieked that Sasha was “on fire” when he noticed what was happening and solicited the help of others to put out the flames.
Jamal was never interviewed, arrested, or charged, even though he had considerable influence on Richard’s actions on the bus.