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A TELL-ALL MEMOIR OF AN UNCONVENTIONAL LEWISTON CHILDHOOD

When a friend of Catherine Gildiner's suggested she write a memoir about growing up in 1950s Lewiston, the Toronto psychologist at first shrugged off the idea.

After all, what was so interesting about her childhood? The fact that she never once ate a meal at home, including breakfast? That she was expelled from Catholic school for spiking the holy water, and seduced by a Jesuit near the brink of the falls?

Or was it the way she earned her keep during her formative years, delivering prescriptions to everyone from the outcast operator of the town dump to Marilyn Monroe on the film set of "Niagara?"

Maybe her friend had a point.

To date, Gildiner's memoir has spent 23 weeks on the Canadian best seller list. Last Monday, "Too Close to the Falls" was released on this side of the falls.

When Gildiner returns to the old stomping grounds this week to promote her book, no doubt she'll run into folks who knew her as Cathy McClure, the precocious tomboy who did Ed Sullivan imitations for money and swung from vines over the Niagara Gorge for kicks.

Some may remember how the McClures never seemed to be at home when company dropped by. To say that Gildiner's mother didn't cotton to hostessing is putting it lightly. If uninvited visitors pulled in the driveway, she made the family hit the floor.

"To me, that wasn't unconventional at all," said Gildiner, now 52, during a phone interview. "I was the only child in a family that turned out to have been judged eccentric, but I didn't have any clue that my family was eccentric.

"My dad owned a drugstore. He was a big fish in a small pond."

In "Too Close to the Falls," readers first meet Cathy McClure as she is being sent to work at her father's Niagara Falls pharmacy.

At the age of 4.

On doctor's orders.

"He explained that we all had metronomes inside our bodies," Gildiner writes of her pediatrician. "Mine was simply ticking faster than most; I had to do more work than others to burn it off."

Ticking dangerously out of control, if you asked her mom. Twice Cathy is knocked unconscious while pulling 360-degree loops on a swing. When she climbs up a cherry tree and can't negotiate her way back down, Lewiston's fire department is pressed into service.

At first glance, the pharmacy seems like a safe haven. The magazines wrapped in brown paper are stacked too high for the little girl's reach - no threat to innocence there.

Nonetheless, Cathy manages to find plenty of adventure with Roy, a middle-aged black man who introduces his junior co-worker to beef on weck and Ella Fitzgerald.

As the pair delivers wart cream, sedatives and other relief to the locals, she meets adults who look nothing like the shiny characters lighting up her family's brand-new TV: a chief on the Tuscarora Reservation. A woman suffering from elephantitis. An ex-abortionist. Slowly, the Betty Crocker veneer of Cathy's hometown is chipped away, exposing a fascinating new world.

What may amaze readers the most about "Too Close to the Falls" is Gildiner's recall for events of so long ago. Her memory, it seems, is every bit as sharp as the compass point she once used to stab the class bully.

"There are 12 episodes in my book, and everyone has had them," the author points out. "When did you realize your parents were wrong? When did you realize there's a whole undercurrent to society? When do you go to someone's house and realize they're different - or you are?"

Released in Canada a year and a half ago, "Too Close to the Falls" received widespread acclaim from reviewers north of the border.

"I cannot recommend this book enough," glowed Jamie Zeppa in the Toronto Star.

Toronto Life magazine praised Gildiner's "richly detailed and absorbing" storytelling, complaining only that the book ends too soon.

Despite the critical acclaim, a Trillium nomination (Canada's equivalent of the Booker Prize) and heaps of interest from Hollywood, a question remains:

How will it play in Lewiston?

Already, curious residents who previewed the book in its Canadian incarnation have weighed in with raves and gripes. Two women told Gildiner they objected to her portrayal of the town priest dipping into the spirits before Mass. Another took exception to her description of the woman's dog as "yappy."

The author said she was most surprised by the former playmate who coolly declined her invitation to attend a reading. Maybe she didn't like discovering that Gildiner found their afternoons together "unremittingly hellish."

"I was a tomboy who didn't want to play with paper dolls. What's the big deal?"

Though Gildiner brings to the page characters she knew for years as well as those with whom she has only chance encounters, she struggled most explaining the person closest to her: her mother.

"She was very conventional in some ways and unconventional in others," Gildiner remembers. "She'd never dream of not planting her petunias in April, but when someone would say that she should have a dinner, she'd say: "Please. I'm doing my research on emerging African nations.' "

Mrs. McClure never prepared a meal, for company or her family. The family always ate out. The only time she fired up the oven was to warm mittens. And that begs the question: Now that Cathy McClure is all grown up, with three kids of her own, does she use the oven for its intended purpose?

"No," she laughs. "I tell my husband to eat a big lunch."

Catherine Gildiner will read and sign her book this evening at 6:30 at the Lewiston Public Library, 305 South Eighth St. At noon Wednesday, she will sign books at Wegmans, 1577 Military Road. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, she will read and sign books at Talking Leaves, 3158 Main St., Buffalo.

TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS
By Catherine Gildiner
Viking
354 pages, $24.95
From the book:
I glanced down at my gleaming metal compass with its sharp point perforating my paper, and I knew my moment had arrived. I buoyed myself up by repeating Roy's fighting words, "Seize the moment, act quickly, and get out." I suddenly turned around, looked at Anthony's see-through freckled hand, made a quick study of the vessels underneath, which looked like a road map. I picked a major highway and jabbed my compass in, knowing I had no second chance. Blood gushed in the air like a geyser. Linda Low took it upon herself to tell Sister Immaculata. (I guess she thought Sister Immaculata might miss the blood fountain spouting from Anthony's punctured hand.) "Sister, Cathy McClure has fatally stabbed Anthony McDougall." (I was sure she got that line from "Perry Mason.") Anthony stood up in slow motion, became paler, which I didn't think was humanly possible, looked aghast at the blood and fainted dead away. As he fell he banged his head full force on the edge of the desk and was out like a light. Following Roy's instructions, I ignored the whole thing and tried to go on bisecting angles.

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