When Sleeping Car Porter won the prestigious Giller Prize for 2022, the jurors praised the novel as a work of historical fiction “alive and immediate and eerily contemporary”. It is the story of R.T. Baxter, a black, queer, train porter attending to white passengers on a cross-Canada trip in 1929.
It was a difficult job, being sleeping car porter. Most of the porters’ incomes depended on tips from the passengers, doled out at the end of the trip. Dimes and quarters and the occasional dollar. They were expected to work around the clock, grabbing quick bits of sleep wherever possible. They had to pay for their own food on board and their pay was docked for missing towels or cutlery. And of course, they were expected to cater to the whims of the white passengers. They served meals, made up and broke down sleeping berths, shined shoes, carried luggage, and when necessary, babysat young children.
These men were all called “George”, regardless of their actual names. The founder of the Pullman cars was George Pullman, and this practice harkened back to the slave-era tradition of naming slaves after the master.
But Baxter has dreams, and a plan. He is fascinated by teeth; he wants to go to dentistry school and knows exactly how much he needs to earn and save for tuition. He counts on those dimes and quarters to reach his goal.
Baxter’s queerness is something he hides from everyone. His recollection of a past relationship haunts him. It was fleeting but incredibly powerful for him. There have been other liaisons, some even on board the train, but it is that first encounter that defines him.
As I have said, Baxter was expected to work around the clock. The author ensures that the pace of the book keeps pace with the pace of his work. We are always anticipating the next chore, the next demand on his time. We cringe at the insults hurled his way, for example when a few bored salesmen ask him for a song and dance! When a mudslide in the Rockies causes a two-day-long standstill, more of the passengers’ backstories emerge, and we see a sleep-deprived Baxter struggle with hallucinations. “He sways, deranged with lack of sleep, fire licking at the edges of his brain.”
Baxter gives the passengers private nicknames, which adds to the humour of the book. The salesmen are Paper and Pulp, a cantankerous couple are Punch and Judy. A mysterious pale loner is Blancmange and there is Mad Mary. Author Suzette Mayr has finely honed the art of character development. They come to life.
In last month’s review of The Berry Pickers, I mentioned how easy it can be to identify a person or a group as “the other” in society, to isolate them, making them “less than”. Baxter stands alone as “the other” in this book, his queerness isolating him, his goal of dental school making him different. As a reader, we feel so strongly how he restrains his appetites, for food, for human contact, for respect. He makes himself less, to be able to serve them more.
Reading this book, I think what I appreciated the most, what really stayed with me, was Baxter’s personality. He is determined to achieve his goal, his dream of dentistry school. He is aware of how little power he has, and how much power the whims of a dissatisfied customer wields. He has been knocked down so often in life, he knows how to get back up and carry on. Just like putting the shine back on a pair of shoes.