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.
Longlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize, shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Brother is a short but tight story contains so much emotion and is very intense. It explores masculinity, family, race, and identity as they are played out in a Scarborough housing complex.
Personally, I really connected with the immigrant experience and problems surrounding this community. I love the fact that this book didn’t shy away from sadness. Grieving is a complicated process and ongoing, whether it’s for death, lost love, lost life, or lost memories. Sometimes it will take collected effort to keep the healing going. In addition, I can better understand the disadvantage in the black community after this book, for that’s what happened to Micheal and Francis. Brother is an important and relevant story today.
I read The Sun and Her Flowers (Rupi Kaur) after this book, and I feel that some of the passages in Kaur’s poems really echo with themes in Brother. These connections between the two books are kind of unexpected and serendipitous.
Brother has an ending that satisfied me; without giving anything away, I just want to say that the very last word charged me with power and energy. It’s not the kind of ending where everyone lived happily ever after, but it offers comfort, support, and it acknowledged that it is ok to have scares in your heart. In the end, what really matters is to express, to reach out, and to heal together.
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Also by David Chariandy:
Have I mentioned my love of Kyo Maclear before? Yes? Well I’m going to say it again anyway.
As I was speeding through our collection of Maclear’s picture books – out of sheer enthusiasm rather than a desire to be done with all of them – hoping there would be no end in sight, I realized (as I noted previously) that I needn’t have limited my search to picture books at all: Maclear writes for adults too!* Better yet, we have them in our collection!
To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, considering picture books are a whole ‘nother beast as compared to adult novels, but I think Maclear has convinced me to continue reading her other novels.
Despite the constant jumping between past and present in Stray Love, Maclear does a wonderful job making it all come together as a coherent story: the reader is not left for a moment disconnected or at a loss as to where exactly in time we are in the story, whether it be with Marcel’s telling of his history with Oliver or the present day with Iris. While Marcel & Oliver are not, in my opinion, discernibly British, and I’m a bit confused as to why they were made to be British because it doesn’t play that large a part in the plot in the sense that they could well have been North American without much detriment to the novel as a whole, the entire novel works. For the time being, I’ve put The Letter Opener on hold and eagerly await its arrival.