February is Black History Month! To celebrate, VPL has put together programming for all ages, including Black History: The Music and the Message for kids, and an adult book club where we’ll discuss The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole. For more programming options, check out our What’s On Magazine.
Suzette Mayr’s The Sleeping Car Porter uncovers a portion of Canadian history lost to time—more specifically, Black Canadian history, lost to time due to institutional neglect. The 2022 Giller Prize winning novel follows a young Black man in the 1920s named Baxter, who has come over from the Caribbean for a job as a train porter in order to save up money for dental school. The novel’s timeline is a single cross-country train journey, from Montreal all the way to Banff, during which Baxter’s lack of sleep results in a blurry delirium made worse by the constant demands of his customers.
I’ll admit I knew nothing about sleeping car porter history prior to reading this novel, but there were enough intentionally placed, specific references to suspect that there was likely a well of history behind Baxter’s story. Why, for example, did (white) customers keep calling him George? What was this Brotherhood they keep mentioning? Turning the last page over to Mayr’s extensive bibliography was the final clue that this novel is very, very heavily based on real Canadian history. So like any good nerd, I went on a bit of a deep dive and checked out They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada by Cecil Foster and My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada by Stanley G. Grizzle, two titles from Mayr’s research that are available at VPL. They Call Me George is a particularly useful companion read to The Sleeping Car Porter, as it often answers the questions brought up in the novel. What I learned took me by surprise: Black porters were not only part of the Canadian cultural consciousness of the early to mid-20th century, they were also instrumental in instigating a Black middle class, and even helped cement—not by accident, but by will—our identity as a multicultural nation, on which we now pride ourselves.
June is National Indigenous History Month, a celebration of the diverse histories, heritages, and present lives of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. “The Government of Canada recognizes the importance and sacred nature of cultural ceremonies and celebrations that usually occur during this time”, as per the official government website. But just as we at the library were preparing resources to celebrate this month, our country was rocked with a gruesome discovery: the bones of 215 children buried beneath the Kamloops Indian Residential School. A horrifically apt reminder from the universe of our dark history, lest it be forgotten amidst the celebrations.
I just finished reading Days Without End by Irish writer Sebastian Barry, a Civil War-era novel that is not shy of relating the atrocities committed by colonists in pursuit of an expanding frontier. The 1860s seem a different world but, in the grand scheme of human civilization, it was basically yesterday. We might like to think we’ve progressed beyond the horrors of the past, but the damage done to Indigenous communities lingers today. The last residential school was closed in 1996, to put that into context. And though we’ve finally scrapped the schools, Indigenous children make up 30% of the population of children in foster care. Our country has an actual human rights crisis on its hands regarding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). The road to reconciliation is long, and we’re not even close to the end (as of writing this, neither the British Crown nor the Catholic Church has officially recognized their devastating roles in the residential school system).
As part of National Indigenous History Month, the Canadian government is promoting #IndigenousReads, in hopes “to encourage reconciliation by increasing Canadians’ understanding of Indigenous issues, cultures, and history”. Publishers Weekly recently put out an interview with a handful of Canadian and American booksellers and publishers regarding Indigenous literature, highlighting the particular benefit of storytelling in “the reimagining of [Indigenous] lives through the storytelling of contemporary Indigenous authors.” The interview is a hopeful one; with the public interest in social issues growing, publishers are more likely than ever to promote (and seek out) Indigenous voices. And even better news: these titles sell well, proving public interest in the subject and thus encouraging even more Indigenous publications.
St Patrick’s Day is canceled once again this year, so no parades, no green beer, no bars blaring The Pogues or Dropkick Murphys and no party-goers spilling into the streets wearing “Kiss Me I’m Irish” shirts (despite not being Irish in the slightest). Of course, St Paddy’s wasn’t always about over-imbibing. Traditionally, it’s the Catholic feast day of St Patrick, the patron saint of the Emerald Isle who is credited with both converting the Irish to Christianity and, famously, for driving the snakes out of Ireland. It wasn’t until Irish immigrants landed in populous North American cities that the day took on its current form of secular revelry (the first St Paddy’s parade was held in Boston in 1737—so it’s fitting that almost 300 years later, the unofficial festival anthem is now “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”!). So since we won’t be donning our sparkly green shamrock headbands this year (not in public, at least), this is a good time to go beyond the stereotypes and look into the long tradition of whisky, and see the cool ways this spirit has endured.
Whisky’s history is cloudy, due to spotty record-keeping back in the day, but general consensus is that it was invented in Ireland by monks around 1000 AD, who probably picked up some distilling tricks along their journeys in the Mediterranean and then applied them to the ingredients they had back home. The name itself comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha—which, from what I can tell, is pronounced something like “ish-ka ba-ha”—meaning “water of life” (so, basically the Irish version of aqua vitae). The first actual record of whisky is from 1405, and the first licensed distillery was Northern Ireland’s Old Bushmills Distillery in 1608. With such a long history of distilling this spirit, you’d think that Ireland would dominate the whisky market today. Unfortunately, the country’s liquor production hit some rough patches during the turbulent 20th century (see: the First World War, the Easter Rising of 1916, and Prohibition in the US that cut off its most lucrative market—not to mention World War II, and the British Empire cutting off trade with the Republic) which dwindled its distilleries down to only two. But not to worry, production of the native beverage has picked up since the latter half of the twentieth century, with new distilleries constantly opening up across the isle, and Jameson placing third in the top-selling whiskies in the world (behind the college-crowd pleasing Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam).