SARSFIELD, Mairuth Hodge

Author Tags: Afro-Canadian, Women

Mairuth Hodge Sarsfield worked as a journalist and researcher before she became an on-camera host for CBC, CTV, and TVOntario. Two projects for Weekend Magazine and CBC-TV, My Friend and The Fourth Wise Man, were illustrated by Graham Bardell. The 2004 reprint of her novel No Crystal Stair was selected in November of 2004 as one of the five titles for the annual Canada Reads competition. Named for a line by black American poet Langston Hughes, the novel reflects Sarsfield's youth in Montreal's African Canadian district of Little Burgundy in the 1940s. It has drawn comparisons with Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute which evokes the French Canadian milieu of Montreal's St-Henri district during the same period. No Crystal Stair encompasses the influence of Rockhead's Paradise, a nightclub that attracted the uptown crowd to hear jazz greats such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and a young Oscar Peterson. Marion Willow, a proud young widow, must work at two jobs to ensure that her three girls develop lifestyles not hindered by class and colour. The bitter-sweet experience of Marion's elegant American expatriate neighbour, Torrie Delacourt, could help the girls survive Canada's subtle racism, which, though not legislated, wounds and hems them in. But the women's rivalry for the love of Edmund Thompson, a handsome railway porter, pits them against one another.

CITY/TOWN: Parksville, BC

DATE OF BIRTH: March 6, 1930

PLACE OF BIRTH: Montreal, Quebec


EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: Former Civil Servant - foreign Service & United Nations


No Crystal Stair (Moulin Publishing, 1997; Stoddart, 1998; reprinted Canadian Scholars Press Inc & Women's Press, 2004)

I could have murdered Margaret Mead


The National Congress of Black Women Foundation's 1st Literary Award, No Crystal Stair, 1997.

Chevalier-l'Ordre National du Quebec, for cultural creativity, 1985.

[BCBW 2004] "Women" "Afro-Canadian"

No Crystal Stair
Press Release 2004

No Crystal Stair depicts the coming of age of three little Black girls growing up in the “Little Burgundy” district of Montreal, Canada, during the mid-forties, the years of World War II. Economic survival is a struggle. Racism, though not rampant, wounds them. But warmth and the will to endure pervade their household and, ultimately, the human spirit triumphs. The girls grow up with unusual skills and a delightful hunger to be part of the world’s larger cultural community. Two Black women, each very different, shape their world. The American courtesan Torrie Delacourt imparts “street smarts” and Black cultural strengths, while the girls’ mother, Marion Willow, schools them in deportment, English poetry and the need for a professional education. But it’s the community as a whole that proves the old African adage: “It takes an entire village to bring up children.”

No Crystal Stair is created from two interweaving themes: “passing” as white, and surviving as Black. Although the ’30s were still remembered as a wounding and a hungry time, the galvanized activities of World War II bring only limited relief to the Black community. The mother, Marion Willow, a proud widow, works at two jobs to raise her three young daughters, Emily, Philippa and Efuah. She must battle the colour bar, property owners who won’t rent to Black families, and Quebec’s Napoleonic Code, which decrees that a woman cannot sign her own lease or arrange her own utilities.

On May the first, 1941, the family moves from St. Henri into the upper half of a rowhouse on rue des Seigneurs, which Mrs. Willow dreams of turning into a respectable rooming house. Three doors down lives a beautiful Creole, Marushka, with whom Oscar, the children’s surrogate “big brother”, falls in love. Their romance is a minefield, for Marushka “passes” as white in order to work in a large department store uptown, while Oscar is restricted to the work of a railway porter,

With great humour and wit, the novel reveals both the conflict and the human heart of the proud and tight-knit Black community through the rather uninhibited adventures of the Willow girls, while providing, through their glamorous friend, the courtesan Torrie Delacourt, a portrait of the “other” Montreal – the city inhabited by jazz musicians, socialites, artists and those whole world revolved around Rockhead’s Paradise, gaming houses and the “sporting life” at the tail-end of the Prohibition era that created Mayor Camillien Houde’s unforgettable Montreal.

-- Women's Press, ISBN 0-88961-451-2