NoCrystalStairNo Crystal Stair, set in the neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in the early 1940s, tells the story of Marion Willow as she tries to give her girls the confidence and refinement they’ll need to rise up in the world, even if she knows that “to be coloured is to be at the bottom of the ladder” in Montreal.

The diverse characters Sarsfield draws in No Crystal Stair are forging their identities and communities in the shadow of the Second World War. The war has taken many men from Montreal households but also created a labour vaccuum, giving Black men access to better quality jobs. The question of what will happen when the soldiers return leaves those workers with little security. And, while Quebec women got the vote in 1940, this is still a Montreal where “No woman, not even the wealthiest woman in Westmount, is permitted to sign for utilities” or sign leases, and widowed Marion must find men in the community to sign for her.

It is, ultimately, the bonds within and without the community that help Marion and her girls to succeed. In fact this story is really more about the community than any one person or family— it’s about Torrie, the worldly sophisticate from down the street; Emily, Marion’s adoptive daughter, and her two girls themselves; the women of the Coloured Ladies Club; the flock at the Union United Congregational Church; railway porter and union organizer Otis; and Poppa Dad. It’s about the provincial citizens of Chatsworth, Quebec; the francophone butcher’s boy from across the way; the Scottish manager where Marion works; the Russian emigrés at the ballet school; and a well-meaning if stubbornly race blind feminist in Westmount. Marion takes care of all of them and they look after her girls and her in turn.

In No Crystal Stair readers are introduced to Montreal through many characters’ eyes. Here’s Redd Foxx’s Montreal:

 “It’s the Paris of the New World. They speak French, play hockey—and it’s got a great Negro nightclub! Canadians didn’t suffer during Prohibition—they prospered. It’s a racy town—you gotta see those de Montigny Street bordellos. Whoo-ee! Not many coloured folks there, though.”¹

Montreal landmarks in No Crystal Stair: Little Burgundy, the Westmount Y,  Rockhead’s Paradise, Ogilvy’s, Chinatown, Mont-Royal Park, Ben’s Deli

sarsfield-mairuth-hodgeMairuth Sarsfield (1925–2013) was born and raised in Montreal, and over the years, she worked for CBC Canada, TV Ontario and CTV. She also worked for the Canadian External Affairs Department, where she was involved with Montreal’s Expo ’67. While working for the UN as senior information officer for the United Nations Environment Programme, she developed the “For Every Child a Tree” program. She received the Chevalier à L’Ordre National du Québec in 1985, and, in 1997, the National Congress of Black Women Foundation’s First Literary Award for No Crystal Stair.

Next up: Hochelaga Revisited, text by Ryan Rice

Hochelaga Revisited


1 Sarsfield, Mairuth. No Crystal Stair. Women’s Press, 2004. p. 80. (first published in 1997 by Moulin Publishing)

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ruRu, first published in French and translated into English, is an autobiographical novel by Kim Thúy. In Vietnamese ru means lullaby; in French it is a stream, often a metaphorical flow of money, tears or blood. This is the story of a girl and her family who were among the many refugees who boarded boats to flee postwar Vietnam in the 1970s. They left in hopes of finding safer shores on the other side of very dangerous seas.

Kim Thúy tells her story in a series of vignettes that jump forward and back through the life of her protagonist, Nguyễn An Tịhn. An adult Nguyễn remembers how her family made landfall in Malaysia where they lived in a refugee camp until they were able to continue their journey to Canada. She remembers their plane landing in Montreal, where they were met by alien vistas of snow, and she remembers her younger self in nearby Granby navigating the ins and outs of lunch hours at the neighbours’, membership in an anglophone cadets corp, and after-school jobs. She remembers, too, the life in Saigon she and her family left behind and how it has informed the way she’s raised her own sons.

Much like memories breaking the surface of one’s mind only to bob down again, replaced with a memory from another time and place, Ru’s chapters, though short and out of sequence, organically assemble themselves into a life remembered. Kim Thúy’s writing is spare and objective, compelling readers to tap their own feelings when confronted with the dangers and kindness Nguyễn encounters rather than borrowing hers.

For readers who are learning French, this is a great read. I’d characterize myself as an intermediate-level reader, and this book’s short length, spare language, and short chapters combined with its beautiful writing and serious themes make it an accessible and engaging read for adult FSL readers.

Montreal (and environs) landmarks in Ru: chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges, Mirabel International Airport, Granby, Granby Zoo

Kim_Thúy_2011-04-16Kim Thúy Ly Thanh arrived in Canada as a Vietnamese refugee in 1979 at the age of 10. Since then she’s worked as a vegetable picker, seamstress, cashier, food commentator, and restaurant owner. With her degrees in law and in linguistics and translation from the Université de Montréal, she has also worked as a lawyer, translator, and interpreter. Ru was her debut novel; she has since written À toi (with co-author Pascal Janovjak) and Mãn.

Kim Thúy’s first impressions of Montreal: “It was a new birth really and that purity, you know, when you come from a country at war…with men in uniforms and curfews, and we didn’t see blood as such but still it was on our mind—that was the background of Vietnam. And then afterwards we were in the refugee camp in Malaysia and we were surrounded by dirt, basically, and [pit latrines] and when we got here it was all white from the plane and that purity really gave us a second birth.”¹

Next up: No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield



1 Ly Thanh, Kim Thúy. from “A Refugee’s Multilayered Experience in Ru.” NPR, November 24, 2012.

Photo credit: Asclepias


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by Heather

Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Direp’tion, n. the art of plundering.

Word in the Wild: After an unknown co-worker stole his lunch out of the communal fridge for the third day running, Amir posted a snarky note demanding the sneak cease all direption.

I’m in favour of a world with a lot less sacking and pillaging, but I think there may still be room for this obsolete word to make a comeback. I, for one, am not above a little direption if it means I can get the first grilled cheese sandwich out of the pan. I guess I’m just plain direptitious.

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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SerafimandClaireSerafim and Claire is a story about two people trying to escape the rigid social mores of the past to find passion in their single-minded pursuit of art. Claire flees the servitude of working for a rich Anglo family to dance on the stages of Montreal’s burlesque theatres, where she’s sure she’ll get noticed and swept away to glittering Hollywood or New York.

Serafim leaves Portugal to escape the stratified social circles that have shut the door against his misplaced ardour for an aristocratic young woman. He takes his portable Leica camera with him as he sails for a new world where people will surely appreciate the value of his candid action shots over stiffly composed portraiture.

But neither Claire nor Serafim can pursue the pure aesthetism of their art in the social roil of 1920s Montreal—they are buffeted on all sides by the realities of the post-war city. Sexual violence, Italian fascism, women’s suffrage, English-French tensions, abortion politics, police corruption, and poverty swirl around them, demanding their attention. Perhaps they could rise above it all with one daring scheme, but will their scheme cost them everything?

Montreal landmarks in Serafim and Claire: the Golden Square Mile, the red-light district

Mark Lavorato, grew up in the Canadian prairies, but as an adult he has travelled and lived in countries throughout Central and North America, the Caribbean, and Europe. He now lives in Montreal with his wife. In addition to being the author of several volumes of fiction and poetry, Lavorato is also a photographer, a passion he caught while researching the character of Serafim. 

Lavorato on Montreal in the 1920s: “They were letting loose and it was this kind of party town. Of course, prohibition was happening in the United States in the 1920s and that meant there were huge trainloads of citizens who would come up from New York, Philadelphia, Boston just for the weekend to be able to party legally here in this…sinful city…. The politics were even more corrupt than they are now—there was free-flowing money and there were all kind of scams to make that money because of this strange mix of legal sin and illegal sin. And in this kind of naive time, there were also these incredibly naive idealists who came out of the swath of immigrants who were in the city, and they were proponents of big new ideas….”¹

Next up: Ru by Kim Thúy



1 Lavorato, Mark. “Historic Montreal in Fact and Fiction.” Ideas. CBC, 2014.


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Coarse vs. Course

by Heather

Lexical Vexations

coarse 1. adj. of a thick gauge; 2. adj. rough; 3. adj. unrefined, crude (of a person).

course 1. n. a path or route followed by people or things; 2. n. a series of classes on a topic of study; 3. n. an established procedure or approach to something; 4. n. a part of a meal; 5. v. to follow a path from one point to another.

Words in the Wild: The small terrier with the coarse hair ran along the course of the river in search of the main course of his evening meal. Meanwhile his coarse owner yelled at the man teaching the canine obedience course, demanding to know what course of action she should take to correct her coursing dog.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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by Heather

Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Chow’ter, v. to grumble like a child or frog.

Word in the Wild: Amitav chowtered at his roommate after she accidentally put his 2014 tax slips through the shredder.

This fun word is obsolete, but let’s not let that stop us from using it anyway. Its etymology is unknown, though chowter is similar to chowre, and chowre may come from the word jower, and both of those words mean much the same thing as chowter. Enlightening, no?

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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NikolskiIn Nikolski Montreal is a migratory hub, a city where nomads wind up, at least for a time. They carry their histories with them, mapping their routes and their roots as they go. Joyce leaves the fishing village of Tête-à-la-Baleine, Quebec, to become a pirate… Noah arrives from the Canadian prairies to study (even if there is no program in International Roaming at the university)… And, following the needle of a broken compass, the sights of an unnamed bookseller reach far beyond the confines of his shop. Each of these wayfarers follows a different path, yet, like three separate books held together in one volume, they’re bound together. Nikolski  has won a number of literary awards in both its original French and translated English editions.

Montreal landmarks in Nikolski: Jean-Talon Market, Dante Park, Little Italy, rue St-Laurent, rue Guy

NicholasDicknerNicolas Dickner, novelist and short story writer, was born in Rivière-du-Loup. He’s travelled in Latin America and Europe, but ultimately returned to Quebec and now lives in Montreal with his family. Dickner discussed the Montreal of Nikolski with Hannah Sung from the CBC Book Club: “Like most North American cities, we don’t feel like Montreal is a historic city, but what I discovered […] is that there is indeed a story […] lots of remains of those former skins of Montreal, but you have to look in a different way.”¹

Next up: Serafim and Claire by Mark Lavorato.



1 CBC Books. “Nicholas Dickner on Montreal.”

Photo credit: Damien D.


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952130-gfCockroach unfolds during a bitter Montreal winter. Its narrator, despite his de facto membership in a community of exiles, is utterly isolated and both fearful and desirous of human ties. As a master thief, he ties himself instead to people’s effects, using them to read the people he cannot trust. He skirts the edges of neighbourhoods, friendships, and drains, trying to stay warm and remain undetected. The story shifts back and forth between the narrator’s mainly nocturnal fossicking on chilly Montreal streets and remembrances of his troubled life in Lebanon. At first the narrator’s self-exile and suspicions make him seem alien and unknowable, but by deftly imperceptible turns Hage reveals a mind and heart as knowable as any other…which is to say barely knowable at all.

Montreal landmarks in Cockroach: the mountain, Old Port, rue St-Laurent, Côte-des-Neiges, Chinatown, Notre-Dame Basilica, Outremont

Rawi Hage grew up in Lebanon and Cyprus before moving to New York City and finally Montreal: he “arrived in the winter in the suburbs of Montreal and it was a bit of a shock.”1 At first Hage found the city to be remote and very different from New York, but once he began studying, the city grew on him considerably. During a recent stay as writer in residence at the Vancouver Public Library, Hage said, “I must confess that my first love will always be Montreal. It is home to me. I’m a true Montrealer…”1

Next up: Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner.



1 Sherlock, Tracy. “Q&A: Rawi Hage on how driving a taxi inspired his writing — ‘A chamber for intimacies, lies, tension.’” Vancouver Sun, August 29, 2013.

Photo credit: Luigi Novi



Montreal Reads

My usual rules for pleasure reading are few. In fact, I may have only one “rule” for reading, which is that I must have variety.

I like to routinely switch from one genre to another, from one setting to another, from one century to another (I have a particular soft spot for unselfconsciously florid conduct manuals from the 18th century). I read nonfiction about all sorts of things under the sun (most recently an account of the decoding of Linear B and a fun little book on astronomy). I like to read books by authors from around the world, books by and about people with disabilities, books representing diverse voices and experiences. I like graphic novels and plays and novels (and at least one pop-up book I read aloud every time someone under three foot tall comes to visit—it’s freaking hilarious).

But, this year, I’ve decided to embark on a bona fide reading project—as a relative newcomer to Montreal, I’ve decided to get to know the literary side of the city by reading books by Montreal writers or books set in Montreal…and often both. Still, I must have my variety, so my reading list includes all sorts of different books, which is clearly a good thing since there’s at least one version of Montreal for every Montrealer who’s ever lived here.

First up: Cockroach by Rawi Hage.


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