Humour and Humanity in the Memoirs of Catherine Gildiner


“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
– Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

Critics at Large Review, photo of Catherine Gildiner

Photo by Neiland Brissenden, Gleaner News


Review by Bob Douglas, Critics At

This apt epigraph opens Catherine Gildiner’s first volume, Too Close to the Falls (ECW Press, 1999), of a memoirs’ trilogy that was followed by After The Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009) and Coming Ashore (ECW 2014). Anecdotally, some readers have indicated that they prefer the first volume and I think I understand why. It has laugh-out-loud humour and describes, in the style befitting a young precocious Cathy McClure (her maiden name), life during the conservative 1950s in small-town Lewistown, New York, and a childhood that, though chock-a-block with incredible escapades, was a happy, secure one, albeit in some ways unconventional. (Cathy, for example, has no memory of ever having eaten a dinner at home since her mother did not want to cook.) Perhaps most importantly, each of the thirteen chapters recounts a pivotal event or relationship that reverberates in the subsequent volumes, a pattern I noticed because I read the third volume first and read backward to the first. Arguably, After the Falls has a less sassy, more sombre tone than Too Close as she describes her activism in the civil rights movement after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and explores more fully her relationship with her parents. Nonetheless, that and the concluding volume, that narrates her time in Oxford, Cleveland and Toronto from 1968 until 1974, acquire greater depth and continue to demonstrate her strengths. She is a gifted story-teller who vividly evokes the cultural texture of the eras of her memoirs. She also reveals her humour, her vulnerabilities and above all her humanity, alongside a penchant for finding herself in bizarre and almost improbable circumstances.

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