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.
On November 18, Genevieve Graham, the Globe and Mail No. 1 bestselling author of Letters Across the Seaand The Forgotten Home Child, will be visiting Vaughan Public Libraries’ Adult Book Club via Zoom. Despite all the battles that the pandemic brought upon, it did teach us one useful thing – to embrace the virtual meeting space, where we get to meet Genevieve, who’s now far away in Nova Scotia. Please register here and enjoy an evening of good conversations with Genevieve!
Genevieve is known for writing about the little-known or much-forgotten Canadian history. The Forgotten Home Child is about over 120,000 destitute children shipped from England to Canada to be used as labour on Canadian farms and households between 1869 and 1932. The book has first made me aware of the abuse and stigmatization that these home children received. And her current bestseller, Letters Across the Sea, has introduced me to the anti-semitic Christie Pits Riot in 1933 and the suffering of the undertrained Canadian soldiers at the inhuman Japanese camps during WWII.
Those heart-wrenching stories have made Genevieve and readers shed millions of tears. But Genevieve’s writing has made the cruel, hard facts digestible as well. Genevieve reminds me of Pierre Berton, the historian who had popularized Canadian history with his light, fast-paced writing style, just all in non-fiction. We should know historical fiction is as powerful as non-fiction history books. In Genevieve’s words, “History itself is in black and white. It feels far away and cold. Bringing the colour of fictional characters into a well-researched point in history, essentially breathing life back into the history, makes the past real. It’s much more difficult to forget a story if you care about the characters, and so history is remembered.” She believes “historical fiction has a huge responsibility: we must teach the mind but also touch the heart.” And she has done this job brilliantly!
I won’t say much about the show other than to say that it was exactly what I was hoping for, which was a dramatic story filled with swoony romance and some shocking twists. While our physical copies of the book have some wait times, you can actually read the first book through Hoopla instantly! Now that we’re all more aware of the wonders of historical romance, I thought this would be a perfect chance to recommend some Regency era historical romance novels. I tried to focus on titles that we have available digitally, so you can read it instantly, and I tried to focus on authors with more than one book so if you particularly enjoy one, you can continue the series.
Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean. This series is one of my absolute favourite historical romances and I just love all the books. While there are not many dukes involved, the novel still revolves around the London ton and has more than its fair share of ladies. It has themes of revenge, found family and a whole lot of swoon. This title is even on Hoopla so there’s no wait times and you can start reading it now (and I mean yes, you want to read it immediately)!
The Trouble with True Love by Laura Lee Guhrke. If you’re looking for an author with lots of books that you can dive into, you can’t go wrong with Laura Lee Guhrke. Even Julia Quinn recommends them! This book is about a woman who writes an advice column for the newspaper and the rake whose advice she takes for the column. The two enter a secret alliance but as we know with Bridgerton, that alliance can only stay platonic for so long.