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'Too Close to the Falls' hits home for WNY readers

On the surface, Catherine McClure Gildiner's childhood in Lewiston in the 1950s seemed pretty mundane. Her parents were happy together. The family was financially stable. Everyone was healthy.

"I thought I had a totally normal childhood," said Gildiner.

And yet...

* At age 4, because she had energy to burn, Cathy started working full-time in her father's McClure's Pharmacy, delivering prescriptions all over town with the store's delivery man, Roy.

* Cathy met Marilyn Monroe, who was in Niagara Falls to film the movie "Niagara," one day on the job when she dropped off Nembutal to the star, who was holed up in her dressing room wearing a tatty slip. Cathy left unimpressed.

* Cathy never ate dinner at home. Her family ate all their meals in restaurants -- for 12 years straight. Her mother didn't cook. Cathy thought all families lived that way.

Gildiner unearthed and related in rich, powerful detail all these stories from her childhood when writing "Too Close to the Falls," her memoir of growing up in Lewiston, which went on to become an unexpected New York Times best seller in 2001 -- a coup for the first-time author.

Now, Gildiner is hard at work on a sequel to "Falls," which will cover Cathy's life from age 15 to her mid-20s, and which will take the young heroine from her hometown to Buffalo, then to college and Europe.

"There were a lot of scales that fell from my eyes at the end (of the first memoir)," said Gildiner, whose first book covered her life up to age 13. "The consequences of that come out in the sequel."

A Toronto resident since 1970, Gildiner spoke to The Buffalo News at length in connection with her first book's selection as the January choice of the News' Book Club.

"I think I grew up in a great place," Gildiner said of Western New York. "I probably did have too much freedom. But I grew up surrounded by colorful characters."

Those colorful people and places fill the pages of "Falls," which will resonate anew with readers in Western New York this month through its use of many familiar names and locales: the Riverside Inn, Niagara Falls, Shim-Shack's restaurant, Hennepin Hall school, Hengerer's department store, Stride-Rite shoes, the Tuscarora Indian Reservation, and more.

"Every child's life does not seem at all strange to them," Gildiner said. "That's the life they lived. I think the things that I wrote about are the things that stood out."

>Eyes wide open

A clinical psychologist in private practice, Gildiner was struggling with the manuscript of a novel when she began writing "Falls" -- at the suggestion of a friend, who remarked to Gildiner that her childhood growing up in Lewiston had been more than a little unorthodox.

"A friend said, "Why don't you write this up?'" said Gildiner. "I thought that [my childhood] was totally normal. Who would want to read about the only child of loving parents who never had a fight and never traveled? There's no drama."

But even Gildiner couldn't argue that her job from the age of 4 opened her eyes to the world, and gave her marvelous stories to tell.

Her full-time occupation as a kid was delivering drug prescriptions with Roy, the black delivery man who was well-known in Niagara County as a McClure's employee, and roundly liked. Cathy became his right-hand assistant, accompanying him on deliveries from sunup to dark, and before and after school once she got old enough for Catholic grammar school.

Riding with Roy, Cathy met movie stars (including, yes, Marilyn) and prostitutes, drunks and psychotics, as well as the upper-crust families of Lewiston such as the DuPonts and Hookers.

"The beauty of a drugstore is, everyone needs drugs," she said. "The poor and the rich. We would go to the mansions and the duplexes. That was one of the wonderful things about being in the store -- everyone got treated equally."

>Memories differ

The "Falls" memoir emerged from Gildiner's mind in one seven-month writing stretch, she said.

"I just wrote it as I felt it," she said of the book, which made the shortlist for Canada's Trillium Award. "It never occurred to me that anyone would read it."

But read it they did, and that's when Gildiner learned a valuable lesson about memoirs: people may have very different memories of the same events.

For example, in the book Gildiner writes about "Warty," a disfigured woman who lived near the Lewiston dump and who worked sorting the townspeople's trash. Because of her disease, which affected her appearance much like the condition of the "Elephant Man," Warty was pitied, ostracized and avoided, Gildiner wrote.

After her book came out, Gildiner had some Lewiston residents tell her that she had depicted Warty inaccurately -- they told her the town was really very friendly to Warty.

"Truth is a horribly difficult concept," Gildiner said. "And memory affects truth. As an example -- I went down to Lewiston [later on in her life] to look at my great big childhood house -- and it was small. Really small -- smaller than the house I live in now. And I thought, 'Wow. Do I write it as the big house of a 4-year-old, or the house I see now?' "

Gildiner's memoir re-creates scenes and conversations in great detail -- indeed, that detail has been praised as one of its best features.

So how does she do that accurately: re-create events and dialogue that took place decades before, and when she was quite young?

Gildiner said it's not difficult for her because the voices and opinions of the people she was closest to in those years are imprinted strongly on her mind.

"There are three voices that live within me -- Roy, my mother and my father," she said. "Can't you tell what your mother would say in a given situation? Of course you can. Your mother's voice lives within you. My mother's voice lives within me."

And so, in writing, "You know how they would respond to a situation because you hear it."

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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>Too Close to the Falls

By Catherine Gildiner
Penguin
354 pages, $15

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