by Suzette Mayr
“9: 45 P.M. Standing next to his step box, Baxter hovers: immobile and elastic, ready to spring forward to lift a suitcase, dissect a timetable, point to the conductor, nod, lift more suitcases, now hat boxes, answer more questions, and nod, nod, nod. Trouser cuffs drag in the dust, shiny boot heels clap against the train station platform; a child runs toward an observation car, ribbons and cuff-links and tickets and goodbye letters swish to the ground. Hands reach toward him, grab at him for a lift up, grab his coat pocket, wave in his face. A sea swell of passengers, spilling toward his car; a maelstrom of departure-time panic”. The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr pg 11.
I want to write like Suzette Mayr. Vivid descriptions, an interesting cast of characters, and a main character whose story is one of heartache, confusion, and blinding determination.
Baxter is a Black sleeping car porter working the Canadian National railway on routes that span a multitude of provinces. Obviously being a porter is anything but glamorous, and Baxter is constantly taken advantage of, verbally abused, and dismissed by a plethora of passengers who demand attention to the most frivolous of requests. Throughout it all, Baxter attempts to go above and beyond his duties so that he does not run the risk of being written up, gaining demerit points or ultimately being fired from his job. However, what keeps Baxter focused on performing the best job possible is the possibility of tips. You see, Baxter is saving up to go to dental school, and at the beginning of the novel we learn he only needs $101 more dollars in his dentistry fund in order to go to school for four years. Throughout the novel we can’t help but root for Baxter to defeat his exhaustion and survive the demands of the passengers so that this can be his final route and he can move forward to fulfill his dream to be dentist.
I was particularly interested in the way Mayr creates her main character. Weaving together flashbacks, events in the present, and Baxter’s fuzzy hallucinatory recollections and interpretations of his reality (brought on by lack of sleep) Mayr places us as close as possible in the shoes and mind of this man.
I would definitely use portions of this novel as a mentor text in a high school classroom. Using the quote above one could discuss a variety of literary devices (imagery, onomatopoeia, metaphor, personification) and how to use colons and semicolons!
Please note that there are portions of this novel that are sexually explicit so be careful of its use in the classroom.