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