First published in 1997, No Crystal Stair is an absorbing story of Montreal in the 1940s. Raising her three daughters alone, Marion discovers she can only find gainful employment if she passes as white. Set in Little Burgundy against the backdrop of an exciting cosmopolitan jazz scene--home of Oscar Peterson, Oliver Jones, and Rockhead's Paradise--and the tense years of World War II, No Crystal Stair is both a tender story and an indictment of Canada's "soft" racism.
In 2005, No Crystal Stair was nominated for that year's Canada Reads and was defended by Olympic fencer Sherraine MacKay.
About the authors
Born in Montreal in 1925, Mairuth Sarsfield was an author, activist, journalist, researcher and diplomat. She was one of the first Black women appointed to the CBC Board of Directors. She worked for Foreign Affairs at Expo 67 in Montreal and at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. As senior information officer for the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi, Kenya, she created the international campaign "For Every Child a Tree." In 1986, Sarsfield received the Chevalier de l'ordre national du Québec. In 2005, No Crystal Stair was a contender on Canada Reads. Mairuth Sarsfield died in 2013 at the age of 88.
Dr. Dorothy Williams is an historian and consultant specializing in Black Canadian history. Her books include Blacks in Montreal, 1638-1986: An Urban Demography, written at the behest of the Quebec Human Rights Commission in 1989 during their study of racism in Montreal's housing market, and The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal (1997), the only chronological study of Blacks on the island of Montreal to this day. It was published in French as Les Noirs à Montreal, essai de demographic urbaine. She lives in Montreal.
Excerpt: No Crystal Stair (by (author) Mairuth Sarsfield; introduction by Dorothy Williams)
The light changed. They crossed the street, Otis protesting against the sound of traffic. "No, man. I'm not into that stuff. No smuggling cocaine for me. Nor marijuana. Nothing!"
"They's dozens who do. You gettin' religion or something, eh? Or have you found some sweet pidididdy gal that's got standards?" Rodney laughed; his wide mouth emitted a guttural donkey sound, but his steely eyes examined Otis coldly.
Otis decided he might as well laugh, for Rodney pretended never to take anything seriously. It was always "Let's catch the action at Rockhead's" or "Let's inspect the chicks at Club St. Michel." He revelled in the nightlife around Montreal's Mountain Street, with its jazz entertainers and brown-skinned chorus girls imported from New York's Harlem. Both nightclubs were owned by former railway porters who, gossip contended, had made their initial nest eggs rum-running, in the decade when Prohibition in the United States made smuggling liquor across the border profitable.
"No Crystal Stair validated certain histories I already knew about Black Canadians in Montreal and taught me about new histories as well. It's exciting to recognize yourself in a work of literature, especially one that is set in the past. At a micro level, it helps to build a sense of belonging to the communities and cultures in which you exist. But at a macro level, it validates your sense of identity -- in this case a Quebecer and a Canadian. When Mairuth came to Montreal on her book tour, I was fortunate enough to get to the Westmount Public Library in time for the reading and she signed my copy! It's nowhere to be found now, sadly, because I enthusiastically lent it to friends in way of spreading the word, not only about the book, but also to bring others to the story of a great Black Canadian woman in arts and culture."
-- Nantali Indongo, host, The Bridge, CBC