Wednesday 8 February 2023

The Sleeping Car Porter

Finished January 31
The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr

This book has been getting a lot of buzz, even more so after winning the Giller Prize last year. I got a copy for Christmas and as it fit a January reading challenge, I decided to fit it in before the end of the month. 
The narrator, Baxter, is a sleeping car porter for a Canadian railway. He started the work as a summer job, but soon decided to stay until he could afford to go to school to become a dentist, a dream he has had ever since finding a dentistry textbook. He is always noticing people's mouths and diagnosing dental issues that he longs to fix. Baxter is black, like the rest of the sleeping car porters that he works with, and he is also gay, something he is careful to keep to himself. Here it is the summer of 1929 and he gets a shift as a last minute cancellation on a train going from Montreal to Vancouver. He has to memorize his passenger list, with their names and seats on the train, and where they will board and alight. When the train gets stuck for a long time in the mountains due to a mudslide, the routine is lost, and Baxter struggles to stay awake and keep his secrets to himself.
There are many situations that Baxter struggles with. One of them is his relationships with the other porters, from Templeton the head porter to Eugene the union agitator. Eugene also is related to a man that is never far from Baxter's thoughts, Edwin Drew, the Porter Instructor who trained him in his job, and who also touched his life in a more personal way. 
Another is the ghost that Baxter sees around the train, crouched in the linen closet, in the corridor, and the other ghosts he sees in passing, in trees and in the cold that emanates from some parts of the train. 
Sleep deprivation is a big issue for all the porters, but Baxter has more issues than usual on this cross-country journey, partly due to the ghosts, but also due to a child who attaches herself to him and will hardly leave his side. 
We see the working conditions of these men, who are on duty 24/7, responding to any call from the passengers. From glasses of water, trips to the bathroom, and shoes left for shining in the night to cleaning berths, compartments, and washrooms at every opportunity, these men not only have to be quick to respond, but cheerful as well. They have to be careful in their interactions with passengers, never arguing or insolent, even if they don't get called by the name on their nametag. They have to ignore deliberate insults and be respectful to everyone, never batting an eye at even the oddest requests. They have to pretend not to notice the passenger's secrets, and hope that all of these things that they do will result in tips and in no complaints. Complaints bring demerit points and there is a limit to how many a porter can get before his job is taken away.
Baxter is a man with ambitions, a man who longs for a real relationship with someone who cares about him but is also passionate, and above all a man who is good and kind.
This story draws attention to historic social issues, some of which are still in play today. It shows the common humanity of people, and how being in close quarters for a lengthy time can stress relationships. 
This is an amazing read, that had me reflecting on many things. 

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