The Sleeping Car Porter is a historical novel set in 1929 about a gay Black sleeping car porter. Baxter works on the cross-country train in Canada as a porter whilst he saves enough money for dentistry school. He relies on the tips from white passengers, who he must appease whatever they want, whilst trying to work with the sleep deprivation that comes as part of the porter job. When a mudslide strands the train, the drama of the passengers and of the postcard of two men that Baxter found on the train and has been storing in his pocket will come to a head.
This is a novel that can be slow to get going and it takes a moment to get into the style of the book, especially as it opens on a different train to the main narrative is going to be set on. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would like the book, as I was interested by the blurb and the specific historical moment in terms of the porters, race, and sexuality, but the book didn’t seem to live up to it. However, as the book progressed, and particularly as you got to know both Baxter and the other passengers on the train more, it became more gripping, with the passengers’ dramas providing low level intrigue alongside the stresses of Baxter’s situation: needing to make enough money, fear of being fired or being imprisoned, and lack of sleep causing hallucinations.
The insight into the world of railway porters at this time (and after the novel ends there’s a list of references showing the research that went into the novel) is fascinating, particularly their labour conditions and the unpredictability of not knowing what the passengers might report them for, all whilst hardly able to get any sleep for days. For Baxter, dealing not only with the work and the power of the white passengers over him, but also having to hide his sexuality at all costs, you see how precarious his existence is. The ridiculousness of the spiritualist character and the seances provides a different tone to the serious despair of Baxter’s existence, showing the disconnect between the well-off passengers and the porters.
The Sleeping Car Porter wasn’t a book I got into immediately, but by the end I was invested in the narrative and the claustrophobic world you get to see on the train. It’s a fairly short book, not packed with endless detail like some historical novels, and brings Black queer history to the forefront to tell the story of a man trying to make it to his dream.
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