Something Happening Here

Book review of After the Falls

Wall Street Journal
October 26, 2010

by Melanie Kirkpatrick

When last we left Catherine Gildiner, née McClure, it was 1960. She was 12 years old and had just been thrown out of a Catholic school in Lewiston, N.Y., a village perched on the rock face along the Niagara River, close enough to the Falls to see the mist rising from its mighty waters. She recounted her childhood in “Too Close to the Falls,” an enchanting memoir that became a best seller after its publication in 1999.

“Too Close to the Falls” was about an exuberant only child raised by eccentric parents in the 1950s, a decade that was anything but sterile or conformist for those in Cathy’s orbit. It was a wise and funny book, populated with memorable characters, not least among them Roy, the illiterate black delivery man at her father’s drugstore, from whom she learned important life lessons. Mrs. Gildiner, it was clear, had the rare skill of being able to present a child’s worldview in an adult’s voice, overlaid with an adult’s knowledge and judgment.

Mrs. Gildiner’s gifts shine again in “After the Falls,” which picks up Cathy’s story as she moves into the years of teen rage and young adulthood. “It would take all I had to maintain my balance,” she writes early on. Cathy emerges intact on the other side of adolescence, though not without emotional scars. Some of her friends did not make it, their lives ruined by war, drugs, drunk driving and other scourges of the young. “After the Falls” is a darker book than its predecessor, and a sadder one, but it too contains an abundance of humor and humanity.

As “After the Falls” opens, Cathy is in the back seat of the family car, speeding along the newly opened Robert Moses Parkway toward Buffalo, N.Y. Her father has sold his drugstore and taken a job with a pharmaceutical company. He has purchased a small house—the most the family can afford—in the affluent Buffalo suburb of Amherst so that Cathy can attend the well-regarded local public high school.

Here I should interject a personal note. Five years after Cathy moved to Amherst, so did I, and we attended the same high school. I didn’t know Cathy, and to the best of my knowledge our lives never intersected. I didn’t know until I read this book that Cathy was the originator of a dubious Amherst High School tradition that lived on into my day: trolling the streets of town at night and spray-painting white the black faces of lawn jockeys that adorned local front yards.

This act of vandalism almost got Cathy arrested, but it had its roots in an abhorrence of racism that plays an important role in shaping her character, especially when she enters Ohio University. “Civil rights was my fight,” Mrs. Gildiner writes. “It wasn’t just a current event to me. The United States was my country, and I burned with the inhumanity of segregation.”

She became an activist in college, taking part in civil-rights rallies and voter-registration drives and falling in love with a black poet. Her sharp descriptions of the kinds of casual, overt racism she encounters among fellow students and their parents are a reminder of how far we have progressed as a nation in our attitudes toward race. They are a reminder, too, of the idealism that motivated many students and young people of that era to take action, albeit sometimes in stupid and unthinking ways.

The adjective “tumultuous” is often used to describe the events of the 1960s. “After the Falls” reminds us of the reason. Like so many others coming of age at the time, Cathy’s world was shaken by the Vietnam War; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; and the sexual revolution. The book is speckled with cultural references—song lyrics, TV advertisements, clothing fads—that will strike a chord with baby boomers. If “After the Falls” were an enhanced e-book, it would be full of entertaining links. Buffalo Springfield’s song “For What It’s Worth” (“Stop, children, what’s that sound?”) is still playing in my head.

Growing up is rarely easy, but doing so in the 1960s, when social mores were changing rapidly, posed special challenges for children and parents alike. Cathy begins the decade wearing Pappagallo flats and John Meyer of Norwich sweater-and-skirt ensembles. She ends it in hiking boots and a pair of bell-bottomed slacks emblazoned with the American flag. Her father is outraged by the pants, which he cuts into pieces and leaves in a pile in her room.

The most important characters in Cathy’s story are her parents, and her relationship with her father is at the book’s emotional core. The man the little girl adored in “Too Close to the Falls” becomes the teenage Cathy’s adversary, the father who can do nothing right. It’s a classic adolescent attitude, and Mrs. Gildiner quotes Mark Twain’s witticism about the 14-year-old boy who found his father so ignorant that he could hardly bear to have him around. “But when I got to be 21, I was astonished how much he’d learned in seven years.”

“After the Falls” is as much about parental love as it is about teen rebellion. Cathy’s father falls ill while she is in high school, shocking her out of her self- absorp tion. When she wants to stay home and attend the University of Buffalo so that she can help care for him, her mother insists that she go away to college. It is the making of her. She discovers that she likes to learn, becomes an academic star and ends up at the University of Oxford in England. She would eventually become a clinical psychologist.

Along the way, like the boy Mark Twain wrote about, Cathy regains a respect and appreciation for her father and his dreams for her. “After the Falls” is dedicated to the memory of James McClure, “for things left unsaid.”

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