Posts Tagged ‘childhood memoir’

Too Close to the Falls by Catherine Gildiner. ECW Press, 1999.

Wow. We’re only a few weeks into 2010, but I’m sure I’ve already read one of my favorite books of the year. Too Close to the Falls is Catherine Gildiner’s memoir of growing up in 1950s Lewiston, New York. Hers was no run-of-the-mill childhood. The only child of older parents, she didn’t spend her days squabbling with siblings or playing tag in the backyard. By the age of four, she had shown herself to be a bundle of energy. The family doctor recommended setting her to work in the family business as an antidote. Thus, her working life began early, as she began counting out pills and stocking shelves in her father’s pharmacy.

Her best friend was Roy, the pharmacy delivery man. Together, they toured the county, with self-possessed and precocious Catherine reading out delivery locations for Roy. Gildiner at once writes from the perspective of a child, while at the same time inferring an adult understanding of events. It is never mentioned that Roy is black, but it becomes apparent to the reader that that is the case. Young Catherine never sees him as different from the rest of the white community. She is therefore puzzled by the reaction of some people to Roy. Catherine and Roy share adventures such as being stranded on a lonely road in a snowstorm when their car spins into a ditch while they are on route to their last delivery of the day. Together, they meet some of the town’s most eccentric characters.

Each of the 13 chapters tells of one event or aspect of her life. My favorite story was “Warty”, in which Catherine sets out to interview a woman who has been marginalized by society because of her Von Reclinghausen’s disease, a genetic disorder that results in disfiguring growths. Now manager of the town dump, Warty has come to terms with life, even though she is shunned by people who think her condition may be catching.

I was also interested to learn of the struggle between the Tuscarora people and the New York State Power Authority over the placement of a reservoir. The appropriation of land and restructuring of the community that resulted bears similarities to events surrounding the expansion of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Gildener’s parents were church-attending Roman Catholics and the latter chapters of the book concern, in part, Catherine’s struggle to find faith. Her experiences speak of the values and sometimes hypocrisy inherent in the system. Not being Catholic myself, I found this section of the book of the least interest. However, many of her experiences have a universality that is easy to identify with.

Gildiner’s writing is engaging and frank, humorous and fast-moving. I looked for Too Close to the Falls after hearing Catherine Gildiner interviewed on CBC Radio. The interview actually relates to her more recent book, After the Falls. I went back and listened to a podcast of the interview after reading Too Close to the Falls and was able to better appreciate her comments. You can listen to Shelagh Rogers’ interview for The Next Chapter here.

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