Goodreads/Waterloo Record Review

The Waterloo Region Record, Nov. 2014
by Chuck Erion
(also published on Goodreads)

My relationship with Catherine Gildiner began in November, 1999. Her childhood memoir, “Too Close to the Falls,” had just arrived at our bookstore and I grabbed it for the long drive to my parents’ home in Sudbury. All I knew was that it took place on the American side of the Niagara River. My early years were spent on the Canadian side in Niagara Falls. The first chapters were too funny to keep to myself, so I read it aloud to my multi-generational family. It was a great connector for the weekend and was “LOL”, even “fall on the floor with tears of laughter”-funny. Catherine was a precocious only child who works from age eight delivering prescriptions for her pharmacist father and annoying her teachers, the nuns.

My wife told about that reading aloud when she introduced Catherine at a book reading for her sequel memoir “After the Falls” in the fall of 2009. Gildiner thanked her, saying it was the best introduction she’d had. “After the Falls” takes the author through her teens in a Buffalo suburb, to her involvement with the civil rights movement. Both books became bestsellers, meaning she needs little introduction for her just-released third memoir, Coming Ashore (ECW Press, 396 pages, $27.95). We againchortled as we also read it aloud.

This volume covers the years from age 21 to 25, from college in Ohio to a year at Oxford in the late 1960s, back to Ohio as a student teacher in a high school in a Cleveland suburb still burning from the race riots, and then to University of Toronto. There she’s arrested, to discover that her roommates were FLQ members. She moves to an apartment further up Huron St., which turns out to be Rochdale, the biggest drug haven in Canada. She switches from literature to psychology and moves in with a boy she meets at a campus film night. His Jewish identity doesn’t occur to her until she meets his parents, survivors of the expulsion of Jews from a Polish shtetl.

Gildiner describes herself, in a video interview on her website, as always a square peg in a round hole, the outsider, angry at those who don’t accept her. She only realized this when she reread “Coming Ashore”. Memoir writing for her is bildungsroman, a coming-of-age record about what she has learned at each stage of growing up. Despite a 25-year career as a therapist, the most important thing she’s learned is that she doesn’t have to be “normal” anymore, comparing herself negatively to what most people do. “Now I’m less argumentative, and have friends who accept me.”

Catherine in all three volumes loves to place herself at the often-witty centre of her stories. Her brush with fame in “Too Close to the Falls” was delivering pills to Marilyn Munroe. In “Coming Ashore”, she meets Jimi Hendrix in a London jazz club. When her Oxford friend gets cancer, they plot a way into his hotel room. Later, in a scene that could’ve been set in Downton Abbey, Catherine is taken to meet the parents of Clive, who has fallen in love with her. The Hunter-Parsons are upper-crust snobs, especially the mother, Wiggles. Catherine cannot resist skewering her.

“Now let me see. Your father was a pharmacist – a sort of tradesman?” [Wiggles asks]
“I like to say my father was a drug dealer.”

Gildiner grew up an only child among the Boomers in the 1950s through 70s. She has chronicled the turbulence of that era, now from American, British and Canadian perspectives. If she portrays herself as always the misfit, she nevertheless has earned thousands of loyal fans, including me. My only regret is that, in the preface, she declares this to be her final memoir, to protect “the feelings of those who travel with me.” I hope she will keep writing, even if publication must be posthumous.