Susan Schwartz, Montreal Gazette masthead
A smart, nervy teen comes of age; Catherine Gildiner looks back on her not-so-typical life

Montreal Gazette
Sat Oct 10 2009
Page: H6
Section: Weekend: Books
Source: The Gazette

She did such outrageous things as a teenager – like take the family car when she was only 13 to meet friends at the local pizza joint and, a few years later, get herself hired as a short-order cook at a Howard Johnson’s even though she didn’t know how to cook – that several times while reading Catherine McClure Gildiner’s memoir about coming of age in the 1960s, I laughed out loud, the way I would at Lucy Ricardo’s antics on I Love Lucy.

The young woman we meet in After the Falls is sassy and cocksure, absolutely. But the book is more than simply funny and Gildiner, then Cathy McClure, is not just outrageous. She is smart and caring, determined and enterprising, curious and brave. And some of the tales she tells are nothing short of harrowing stories in which sex, infidelity, even murder, figure.

Gildiner came of age in the United States at a time defined by the Vietnam War, by civil rights demonstrations and by the death of Martin Luther King – and readers see the time through the prism of her experience. “We all lost people in Vietnam,” she said in an interview. “We all knew people who were maimed.”

She “burned with the inhumanity of segregation” in her country, she writes. “I felt that civil rights was my fight.” At 13, she might have been too young to travel to the South to march or demonstrate, but not too young to deface the statues of black men in jockey uniforms and caps on the lawns of the homes of some neighbours – ornaments that deeply offended her.

When the family dog had to be put down, it fell to Gildiner, still in high school, to take him to the vet. Her father was ill with a brain tumour by then. “It was too much for my mother, so I didn’t say anything to her,” she writes.

Those of us who read her first memoir, Too Close to the Falls, published a decade ago, know that Gildiner was the only child of parents who were in their 40s when she was born. Her mother’s parenting style was laissez-faire; Gildiner worked side by side with her father for years in his drugstore, McClure’s Drugs, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., from the age of 4 – at her pediatrician’s suggestion. He said everyone had an internal metronome, that hers ticked faster than most, and that burning energy by working was a good idea.

After the Falls picks up where the first memoir left off. When Gildiner was 12, life changed profoundly: her father sold the pharmacy and took a job with a drug company; the family moved from their historic colonial home to a tiny tract house in suburban Buffalo – a house she loathed.

Gildiner, now 62, is a born raconteur. Her writing style is lively and conversational; dialogue, which figures strongly, comes easily to her, “but I used it only if the character was part of my soul,” she said.

She knew, for instance, “what Roy would say.” Roy, who figures in the book, was the driver at her dad’s pharmacy; the two had worked together for years and in After the Falls, she goes to him for counsel, if only in her imagination.

She knew also what her parents would say. “They’re people who live in my heart,” she said.

Details are camouflaged to protect the privacy of the people she describes, but as Gildiner observes in an author’s note, she made every effort “to be as true as possible to my memories about the personalities and the incidents.” Her goal, she tells us, was to convey the emotional truth of her experience.
A reader may have minor quibbles, with tortured syntax and lazy fact-checking: John F. Kennedy was married in St. Mary’s Church in Newport, R.I., not St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

But Gildiner does not waver from her goal, which was to depict her flawed and somewhat eccentric parents with love and affection. In the book, she thanks them “for being the best parents a child could ever imagine,” and frets that she didn’t tell them so while they were alive.

“None of the adventures in this book could have transpired if they hadn’t encouraged their strange only child to be herself at all costs.”

In the end, After the Falls is about relationships. And as Roy once said, or as Gildiner imagines he did, “a relationship is a feeling. All the bad acts in the world won’t destroy it.”

By Catherine Gildiner
Alfred A. Knopf Canada,
344 pages, $32.95