Suzette Mayr's novel The Sleeping Car Porter highlights Black Canadian history — read an excerpt now

The novel is a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The winner will be announced on Nov. 7, 2022.

The novel is a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

An author with gray and black hair holds her book while standing on stage.
Suzette Mayr is the author of the novel The Sleeping Car Porter. (John Kristalovich/Scotiabank Giller Prize)

The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr tells the story of Baxter, a Black man in 1929 who works as a sleeping-car porter on a train that travels across the country. He smiles and tries to be invisible to the passengers, but what he really wants is to save up and go to dentistry school. On one particular trip out west, the train is stalled and Baxter finds a naughty postcard of two gay men. The postcard reawakens his memories and longings and puts his job in jeopardy. 

"It's really important that Black people become part of the fabric of the history of this country. It gets a little tiring when the only time you talk about it is in February, because it's Black History Month. It's every month. It's everywhere," Mayr said in an interview with CBC Books.

"This particular group worked really hard to get ahead. I'm not necessarily related to one of these porters, as far as I know, but they've paved the way for me in all kinds of ways.

"So Black history matters, every month of the year."

Mayr is a poet and novelist based in Calgary. She is the author of the novels Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley HallMonocerosMoon HoneyThe Widows and Venous HumMonoceros won the ReLit Award, the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Book Prize and made the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

Read an excerpt from The Sleeping Car Porter below.

The book cover features an illustration of a black man in a pink and mustard full suit with a beige brimmed hat. He stands in a field lines with trees in the background and he stands beside a small white bunny and a grey squirrel at his feet.

He delivers the pairs of shoes as he completes them, slides them back under curtained berths, opens the individual lockers and shoves them in, toes to the front, heels to the back. He blacks boots, polishes, he buffs, he polishes again. Edwin Drew once told him and a group of other student porters a story about how one time he collected all the shoes from a car full of passengers, and then when he went to return the shoes, saw that the passengers' car had uncoupled from the rest of the train when the train stopped at the last station, and that he now had a bag full of shoes and no passengers, and the passengers had no shoes. Baxter and the other greenhorns shuddered with laughter, Edwin Drew grabbing Baxter by the arm to hold himself up as he guffawed, and Baxter feels buttery inside at the memory, at the glowing warmth and strength of Edwin Drew's grip through his sleeve. As he returns the pairs of shoes one by one, the fact that he doesn't have enough brown shoeshine to last out this run picks at the back of his head. Eugene two cars over might have extra brown shine. Yes, he can ask Eugene for some brown shoeshine. He will brush aside Eugene's childishness, his sulkiness. After all, as porters they are all brothers, Eugene chattering on about the Brotherhood. Once upon a time Eugene still treated Baxter like one of his own: he taught Baxter new card games whenever they met up at porters' quarters, then he'd lick him at the exact same card games. He joked with Baxter like a little brother about the books Baxter read, how his nose was always in a book or a magazine and he seemed to like books better than people. 

LISTEN | Suzette Mayr on what it's like being a finalist for the Giller Prize:

A Calgary writer's latest book has been shortlisted for the 2022 Giller Prize. Suzette Mayr's historical novel about a queer Black railway employee is up for the biggest prize in Canadian literature. Mayr joins us to talk about the nomination.

– Maybe if you weren't reading so many weird books you'd find yourself a wife, Martian! Eugene would say.

– Har har! Pass me that deck of cards. I have another game I can teach you to lose. 

Eugene fanning the cards out on the table between them, his straw sailor hat perched toward the back of his head, his bony fingers and wrists flicking and dancing in the air as the cards fell in precise, geometric formation. 

– Nothing wrong with being from Mars, Baxter would say, and Eugene would just snicker,

– Sure, Martian. 

Then, after the Edwin Drew matter happened, Eugene started making a face like Baxter was a charred piece of meat whenever he saw Baxter. Suddenly. Sadly. Baxter never knew who told Eugene; it could have been Eugene's sister, Edwin's wife. Or Edwin himself. Edwin would never do that. 

Baxter passes through the vestibules between their cars and almost trips over a pair of men's shoes sprawled in his way, the shoes polished so hard the uppers mirror his face. Before he touches them, his face and fingers reflected back oblong and jagged in the leather, he realizes the soles glow like embers, they don't belong to anybody on this train, and so he steps over them so they won't contaminate him. No one else will bother with or even notice figmental shoes like these. 

He worries that one day the lack of sleep will drive him into the lunatic asylum. 

He worries that one day the lack of sleep will drive him into the lunatic asylum.

At first Eugene pretends not to hear Baxter as he buffs and turns a shoe, his elbows pointed out too far, then drops it next to its mate, his feet buried in multiple pairs of passengers' shoes, exactly the way porters are not supposed to do it. 

– Got none to spare, says Eugene. His mouth flattens into a disappointed slice. Baxter's chest contracts. Eugene has the longest eyelashes Baxter has ever seen on a man. 

Eugene's call board chimes, and he tosses the shoe back into the pile. He unfolds his stick-figure self up from the stool, one limb at a time, not hurrying one bit. Baxter retreats from the doorway as Eugene pushes past him. 

Baxter returns to his car, the ground rocking as he moves. He'll ask the freckled porter to watch his car. 

Excerpted from THE SLEEPING CAR PORTER. Copyright © 2022 by Suzette Mayr. Excerpted by permission of Coach House Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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