No Crystal Stair

Mairuth Sarsfield

November 2021

First published in 1993, No Crystal Stair is an absorbing story of urban struggle in the 1940s. Raising her three daughters alone, Marion discovers she can only find gainful employment if she passes as white. Set in the Montreal working class neighbourhood of 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 of friendship and community as well as an indictment of Canada's "soft" racism.

In 2005, No Crystal Stair was nominated for Canada Reads and was defended by Olympic fencer Sherraine MacKay. It has been out of print for the past several years and this re-edition is an opportunity to bring a pivotal work of fiction back to Canadian readers.

The French translation, En bas de la côte, was published by LLP in 2022.


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. Mairuth Sarsfield died in 2013 at the age of 88.

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Format: Trade paper

Size: 8 x 5 in.

Pages: 314

What they say
"An unforgettable Montreal"
Val Rwigema, Montreal Review of Books

During a wave of rising interest in the history of Black communities in Canada, the re-edition of the late Mairuth Sarsfield’s 1993 novel No Crystal Stair is timely and welcome. The book is an homage to Sarsfield’s home neighbourhood of Little Burgundy and is named after a line in the famous Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son.” The 2021 edition includes a beautifully written preface by Dorothy W. Williams, author of Blacks in Montreal 1628-1926: An Urban Demography, who, like Sarsfield, grew up in Little Burgundy.

Rich with romantic imagery, No Crystal Stair is set in 1940s Montreal. Sarsfield follows the Willow family, who have just moved onto rue des Seigneurs in Little Burgundy. Marion Willow, a loving and passionate single mother determined to give her daughters what she considers a proper upbringing, is unwavering in her attempts to provide her family with what they deserve. Teaching her daughters to be discerning and righteous, Marion expects them to grow up to break the proverbial glass ceiling. Otis, a family friend’s nephew and an older brother figure to the girls, joins the Willow family in their new home while working as a porter on board the trains of the transcontinental railway.
Read more.
May 2022, Montreal Review of Books

Validating history
Nantali Indongo, CBC

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 original 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.



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