Too Close To The Falls
by Catherine Gildiner

Viking Penguin, 2001. ISBN 067089463X.
Reviewed by Melanie Alberts
Posted on 10/26/2002

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Relationships

Cathy McClure was such an active toddler that by age four she received doctor's orders to work full time in her father's pharmacy. Since she already could read, one of her duties was to ride with Roy, an illiterate co-worker, and announce the names and addresses for medication deliveries. Cathy called her father "Boss" and spent her paycheck on various wagers made with Roy. These unusual scenes set the tone of Catherine Gildiner's childhood memoir of life in a small New York town on the Canadian border in the 1950s.

Her memoir is the journey of an only child raised to be a free-wheeling Parochial innocent. Little Cathy's young life is informed by Franciscan nuns who expect piety, while her personal life demands independent thinking. Her best friend is a black man, and she eats all her meals at restaurants. She earns respect after stabbing a boy at her Catholic school. Literally living "close to the Falls," she often finds herself teetering closer to the edge.

Although the stories are entertaining, I often found myself thinking, "How could this have happened? Her parents must have been nuts!" Ms. Gildiner does offer insightful backgrounds of her parents and other characters responsible for her upbringing. One early chapter details Cathy's intimate relationship with the family's first television set. Ms. Gildiner writes, "One thing I knew about myself - I was a good storyteller." Two chapters focus on her relationship with Roy, while one chapter each centers on her history-absorbed mother and her mentor, Sister Agnese. The latter chapter touches on Cathy's favorite nun's efforts to censor Elvis' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Ironically, "Mother Agnese suggested one should spend the time with their eyes closed whispering 'ejaculations.'" It also details the nun's success as a track coach.

Other chapters are devoted to visits with a former madam, the boys in her gang (the Bloods), an Indian chief, Marilyn Monroe, and a deformed woman named Warty who runs the city dump. Cathy interviews Warty for a school competition to discover Lewiston's "future saints." Although her motive is to win the competition, Cathy takes risks to reach out to the ostracized Warty. Through her tears, Cathy writes "the best thing I'd ever written" about this saint of Lewiston. My personal favorite, this unsentimental portrayal of Warty was warm and moving.

Too Close To The Falls also can be read as a character study of a girl who becomes a clinical psychologist. Cathy's initial experience with a psychologist comes after she stabs her classmate. This first visit, which she calls a "tortuous excursion," reveals a self-possessed girl intrigued by her therapist's methods of delving into her subconscious. These pivotal scenes with the doctor are initially amusing, since we know irrepressible Cathy was just following Roy's advice - without a deeper motive. Upon meeting Dr. Small, Cathy observes, "He folded his hands on his desk in front of his minuscule clock and didn't say anything for some time. I guess he was looking to see if I was sane. I wanted to be careful not to pick at any lint or repeat what he said...I didn't want to display any insanity." It ends with her "turn-coat mother" agreeing with the doctor that her daughter needs "more limits at home and more time with female playmates." After a second round of tests, Cathy thinks, "I was sure God didn't test this much before He opened heaven's gate. Nor did Joan of Arc have to fight so much for her sanity. If her inquisitors had been this relentlessly devious, it was no wonder she finally said, 'Just burn me at the stake.'"

As an ex-Catholic, I found Cathy's religious growth throughout the book and eventual disaffection for the Catholic Church most interesting. The final two chapters detail her eventual dismissal from Parochial school and her flirtation with a handsome, young priest. This brief romance is a fitting, if abrupt, end to her memoir as Cathy deals with her doubts about God and the Church. Gildiner's book is filled with great storytelling, humor and insight. Cathy McClure was an extraordinary child, raised to trust her intelligence. Her story is not easily forgotten.

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