The Sleeping Car Porter

Set in 1929 on "the fastest train across the continent," The Sleeping Car Porter is the immersive story of a "run" by 29-year-old R.T. Baxter, a Black gay porter reduced to obsequious servitude and the unrelenting demands of riders. The sixth novel from Suzette Mayr (Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall) moves with the train's rhythm, rocking, chugging and whistling from Montreal to Vancouver.

Baxter--or "George," as the white passengers dismissively call him--dreams of being a dentist and calculates every tip earned, anticipated or withheld against his savings for dental school fees. An unforgiving demerit policy puts porters perpetually on notice, and the looming threat to Baxter's security is palpable. With his smile "broad but not too broad," Baxter prepares berths, shines shoes until the leather gleams and answers requests while "sleep pokes him in the ribs." Nevertheless, Baxter's good will suppresses his exhaustion and anxiety. He silently labels passengers: "Punch and Judy" are the pursed-lipped, red-cheeked newlyweds; "Paper and Pulp" the spatting businessmen. A despondent girl flees her overwrought grandmother to cling to Baxter, so he "works one-handed, or... lets her hang off his back." His obsession with dentistry lends comic relief: "He's stuck with her like a raspberry seed caught in a molar," Mayr writes of a particularly onerous passenger. A mudslide delays the train and its impatient inhabitants "an extra day-and-a-half-two-days-he's-lost-count-of-the-days," but climactic plot twists bring Baxter unexpected hope in this unusual piece of historical fiction. --Cheryl McKeon, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.

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