Those readers who enjoyed Catherine Gildiner’s best-selling memoirs of her childhood and adolescence will be delighted to see Coming Ashore, the third in her series, a vivid retelling of her years as a young woman in the late 1960s and early ’70s. They will also be disappointed to learn that this volume is her last in that series.
The reason she is stopping? It is a good bet it is not because the author’s life gets less full of incident after age 27; by the end of book three, we are well acquainted with Gildiner’s remarkable tendency to encounter, shall we say, lively events. No, this is the last in the series, she explains, because she does not feel entitled to describe the thoughts and feelings of those fellow travellers—husband and children, we assume, among others—who have since entered her life; not, at least, in the subjective terms she needs to write her own memoir. As she says: “Memory is such a tricky phenomenon that I want to take responsibility only for myself.”
A psychologist by profession, Gildiner has had occasion to give that tricky phenomenon a lot of thought. Indeed, two questions will occur to anybody reading Catherine Gildiner’s engaging memoirs. How does she manage to recall her adventures in such colourful, riveting, not to mention comic, detail? And how does she manage to have so many adventures, sufficient to fill three books before reaching her 30th year?
Gildiner explains: “Some times of your life are so memorable that you can almost reach into your mind and touch them … I had the traumas burned into my mind as though they’d occurred yesterday. I can remember the weather, the time, what I was wearing, where I was standing and exactly what was said or not said. I can flip through them like shuffling a deck of cards … These traumas were all stored and could pop up in Technicolor leaping across my synapses.”
And they come leaping off the pages of her memoirs as well.
In her first book, Too Close to the Falls, we meet Gildiner in the 1950s, at the age of five, an eccentric child in an unusual family living in Lewiston, New York, a few miles north of Niagara Falls. A fearless little girl with boundless energy, with no sense of the conventional, her mother describes her as “not the child they expected.” We get the full Technicolor treatment of her childhood antics and near catastrophes from age five to 13, from the perspective of a child’s limited understanding of events, all told with perfect comic timing. The effect is amusing and alarming in equal measure.
In her second memoir, After the Falls, Gildiner recounts her coming of age in the 1960s, her father’s incurable brain tumour, her move to Ohio State University, her ill-fated first love and her involvement in the civil rights movement. When that involvement ultimately turns dark, a visit from the FBI prompts her to accept the offer of a place at Oxford, far, far away.
And that brings us to Coming Ashore, where our heroine is older but not necessarily wiser. Gildiner, it must be said, remains an original.
At Oxford, with total disregard for British notions of decorum, she takes on the English class system and learns the truth of Churchill’s remark that Britain and America are “two nations divided by a common language.” For this she is told she is “bumptious.” She is cheered on in a sculling race, by—it would appear—the young Bill Clinton. Attacked in the women’s shower, she successfully fends off a serial rapist with a bottle of Prell shampoo. She contrives a meeting that leads to a blissful weekend of sex with Jimi Hendrix, not for herself, but for a girlfriend who, diagnosed with cancer, confided to her that this was what she wanted most before she died (and is happily still alive today). She gets caught up in England’s biggest traffic jam ever, by insisting, despite all friendly warnings, on hitchhiking to Wales on the very weekend that the Prince of Wales was to be invested there.
The Wales caper tells us that the “busy, bossy and Irish” five-year-old still very much resides in the breast of the young Oxford scholar. As Gildiner admits: “One thing I am is determined. When I decide something, no matter if it is a reasonable plan or some cockamamie scheme, I carry it out.” And she certainly does do cockamamie. Stranded in the north of Wales with a boyfriend, she climbs a mountain with zero equipment while wearing sandals, persevering to reach the craggy summit despite raging winds, bitter cold, the waning of the day and the desperate objections of her wiser companion who refuses to go further once the danger becomes obvious. But then again, cockamamie schemes, when they do not lead to complete disaster, can lead to rich and unexpected experiences.
Alone and much later, after a perilous hours-long descent in the dark, a battered and exhausted Gildiner stumbles at last upon a tiny stone public house on a lower mountain ridge, where she is welcomed with a restorative glass, much gentle teasing and a seat on a milking stool by a huge fire. As she rests her rapidly swelling legs, she and the locals watch the television as Neil Armstrong puts man’s first step on the moon.
If it does not kill you, this kind of thing makes a good story.
Eventually Gildiner arrives in Toronto to do a master’s in literature at Victoria College. She accepts a friendly offer of shelter at Rochdale College from a man who turns out to be Rochdale’s biggest drug dealer. Ever resourceful, Gildiner puts her exposure to drug culture to good academic use. Assigned to deliver a two-and-a-half hour seminar on Coleridge’s views on Shakespeare, based on his lectures delivered at Oxford in 1818, she discovers there is next to no material. The lectures, preserved only in the notes of listeners, reveal a Coleridge hopelessly intoxicated and wildly off topic. With so little to work with, Gildiner chooses to give her seminar as the intoxicated Coleridge himself, strictly in character and deadpan, combining a knack for early 19th-century prose with Rochdale stoner argot. Her hard-to-impress professor is amused in spite of herself. She tells Gildiner: “It may be none of my business, but I have some advice that I hope you will heed. In terms of a career, I think you should become a comedy writer.”
And so indeed she has.
Part of the charm of the earlier books is Gildiner’s ability to evoke the childish and adolescent view of things, a naiveté in an adult world that we, the reader, understand better than the protagonist. That necessarily falls away as Gildiner matures in her third book. Instead, we get a sense of how the singular child and the stormy, vulnerable adolescent become the bumptious one-woman force-field, finding the wrong guy, then the right guy, love, marriage and a couple of advanced degrees along the way. The last book in her engaging and entertaining memoir series, well written, witty and frank, Coming Ashore leaves us wanting to hear what comes next. I think that says it all.
Grace Westcott is a practising copyright lawyer and past executive director of PEN Canada.