Monday, January 16, 2017
Time: 7:30 (discussion to start at 8)
Location: Lindsey's house (28 Berko Ave)
1. The memoir opens with Beth's annual Plan of Care review, and Beth's request of Rachel to accompany her on bus rides for an entire year. Discuss Rachel and Beth's relationship at the outset of the book: What kind of dynamic do they have? What kind of a role does Rachel play in Beth's life at this point (and vice versa)? What obstacles to their relationship are evident from the first? What do you think was the motivation for Beth's request? Did their tension reflect tensions that you have felt with family members? To whom did you relate to more, Rachel or Beth?
2. Why does Beth love riding the buses? What does she gain from this ad hoc community? Does our understanding of her devotion to the buses deepen over the course of the book, and if so, how does Simon make that happen? Do we come to certain realizations before the character of Rachel does? Examine your own reactions as you read, and when and why they changed. Have you known other people who are devoted to an activity that you do not understand? How did your understanding of Beth's bus riding affect your thoughts about those other people?
3. How do the italicized sections of the book, which relay Rachel and Beth's family history, inform the present-day chapters? Describe the tone of these sections, and the way in which Simon manages to convey their tragic and convoluted past. How does she deal with emotionally charged scenes from the past, and how do they inform our understanding of not only present-day situations and events, but also present-day relationships?
4. Discuss our perspective of Rachel's mother throughout the book: from her panic and despair over the baby Beth's mental disability, to her growing alienation from her children and husband, to her emotional collapse and marriage to "the bad man." How do we view her reunion with her children when they are grown? How does Simon deal with the way each child shifts from anger to forgiveness? At what points do you sympathize with her mother and at what points do you judge her? Discuss the extent to which this is due to the way Simon writes about her mother. How does the story of Rachel's mother shed light on other mothers you might have known who have reached the breaking point with their families?
5. Examine the relationship between all of the children growing up: Laura, Rachel, Beth and Max. Compare their relationships with each other as children to their relationships with each other as adults. What has changed, and what has remained the same? How supportive of one another were they as children, compared to their lives as adults? How did their dynamic shift over time? What do you think were the direct causes? Would things have been different if the family had stayed together?
6. Discuss the way that Rachel, Laura, and Max were affected by being the siblings of a person with special needs. How much of a role do you think Beth's disability played in their growth as individuals? How did their parents' feelings toward Beth affect the ability of the other siblings to accept her? What are some of the emotions that Rachel reveals she felt about her sister, starting with her being a little child, then a teenager and young adult, and finally a woman entering middle-age? What is the impact of her parents' own difficulties on her sense of her own responsibility toward Beth? Examine Simon's approach to the times when she was not feeling positive about her sister. Discuss the device of the "dark voice." Have you known other siblings of people with disabilities? How do their emotions and concerns mirror those of their parents, and how are they distinct or unique?
7. Discuss Jacob, the Christian bus driver who would have Beth "do unto others as you would have done to you." Consider how we see his role in Beth's life, which goes beyond bus driver to become a true friend (one who takes her to the beach with his family, and cares for her before and after her operation). What kind of a person is Jacob? What makes him likeable, and what keeps him from being an overly sentimental person, or "character," in the book? Compare his role in Beth's life with the friendship he begins to form in Rachel's life. He is clearly on a spiritual journey. Are other characters in the book also on a quest to live a more spiritual life? What is the role of spirituality in the book?
8. Now consider Rachel's relationships with the bus drivers. How does her need for their insight and kindness compare to Beth's? How do her relationships with them differ from Beth's, or do they at all? What do you think the bus drivers gain from their friendships with Beth, and subsequently, Rachel (for example, Jacob, Rick or Rodolpho)? How do we see their relationships progress from the opening of the book to its end?
9. Discuss Beth's romantic relationship with Jesse: How would you describe their dynamic? How does their relationship compare with what you know of Sam and Rachel's relationship? Is mental disability portrayed as being a significant factor in Beth and Jesse's compatibility? What did you think of the way Rachel's family handled Beth's burgeoning sexuality, and Beth's annual reminder to Rachel: "Its TEn years since I cant Have a baBy?" Did learning about Beth and Jesse's relationship affect the way you view adults with disabilities? How?
10. Is the book enhanced by the inclusion of Beth's letters? How and why? What about Jack's recipes? The references to music?
11. Discuss the ramifications of Rachel's outburst near the culmination of the memoir, where she blurts out "I hate you," in response to Beth's surly, inhospitable demeanor. What does this heat-of-the-moment admission do to both sisters? What kind of change does it invoke in Beth's behavior, and what does it reveal to Rachel about her own feelings? How does it alter their relationship? Why did Simon include it?
12. Compare the annual "Plan of Care" review at the end of the book with the one at the beginning. What kind of progress or change has been made in the way Beth lives her life? What relationships have altered between the people in Beth's apartment? Discuss Rachel's revelations at this meeting and her reaction to Beth's curt "The year's over."
13. Describe the impact of the epilogue to the book, "A Year and a Half Later." What does it demonstrate about Rachel's transformation over the year? What progress has Beth made? How satisfying is this ending, for both the reader and Rachel? What kind of message does Simon leave us with, and how effective is her story as a medium for that message? How did you feel when you finished the final paragraph?
(Questions from the author's website.)
Food - Beth's eating habits are often referred to in the book as a source of concern by some of her caregivers. However, Beth cares more about riding the buses and therefore eats a lot of "on the go" foods. I've included some of the different foods that Beth loves to eat, as well as the recipes that Jack shares with Rachel, as he plays an important part in Beth's life. The list below is only some examples so feel free to be creative, bringing anything that you feel fits into a life that would include riding the bus daily! Or if you want to take the role as caregiver you can bring food that her caregivers/family encourage (see pages 18/210-211). Ex: Vera tries to encourage Beth to include more veggies into her diet and teaches her to cook when she is in a group home setting.
Examples of Beth's eating and Jack's recipes
pg 18 chocolate pudding
pg 18 hotdogs
pg 18 cream cheese on bagels
pg 186 - m&m cookies
pg 206 - Jack's chicken pot pie
pg 18/211 - spaghetti and meatballs
pg 212/290 pizza
pg 214 Jack's Red Beet Eggs
pg 218 Jack's chocolate mayonnaise Cake
pg 299 - ice cream
pg 18 / 210-211 - take on a caregiver role (fruit/veggies, a food you would encourage a family member to eat)