by Suzette Mayr
It’s 1929. We ride the rails cross-country with R.T. Baxter, a young, gay, black man, who – despite his dislike of trains – has been a sleeping car porter for eight years, trying to save enough money to pay for dentistry school. As wealthy passengers took “the fastest train across the continent!” in comfort and luxury, their needs, wants, and impossible whims were met by porters at all hours of the day and night. At the time, there were few decent jobs for black men; being a porter often carried a certain amount of prestige and respect within black communities. Through Baxter’s eyes, however, we experience the harsh reality of low pay, scant tips, poor living and working conditions, crushing fatigue, and systemic and interpersonal racism. We also witness the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s subjective and punitive system of demerit points, which saw porters disciplined and even fired for the slightest of offences. On top of this, Baxter must carry luggage, turn down heavy berths, deliver food and drinks, shine shoes, wake detraining passengers, and occasionally care for children, all while smiling – but not too much (that’s a demerit). It is no surprise that Baxter’s colleagues want to unionize; in fact, black porters in Winnipeg formed the Order of Sleeping Car Porters in 1917, the first black railway union in North America.
I was drawn to this book because of a childhood love of trains and an adult wish to make the same journey depicted in the story, while learning about experiences that were radically different from my own. Suzette Mayr’s The Sleeping Car Porter forces us to confront some ugly truths about Canadian society. She paints a moving and unsettling portrait of an intelligent, hardworking, and sensitive young man who suffers doubly for being both black and gay. I enjoyed the audiobook version, evocatively read by Chris McPherson.
In a month that is bookended by Canada Day and the start of Pride Week, it is sobering and necessary to reflect on Canada’s oppressive treatment of one of its most vulnerable communities. This remarkable work of historical fiction lets us relive the challenges, hardships, and sleep-deprived hallucinations of Baxter and countless other porters, who, through their tireless service and activism, have left a profound legacy of advocacy for social change that is still felt today.