Laura Pedersen,
Buffalo Gal
(Fulcrum, 2008)

Memoirs appeal to us on two fronts. First of all, we want to find some semblance of our own lives within the pages of someone else's; we want to find a common denominator that invisibly binds us. Conversely, we also want reassurance that our story is not exactly the same as this other one we're reading. Ours might be tamer or more "normal" or at the very least, just different. Buffalo Gal comes through on both counts.

Writer and former stockbroker Laura Pedersen examined her time at the American Stock Exchange in Play Money: My Brief but Brilliant Career on Wall Street. Here she offers a prequel, a telling of her life history before that stint. As a Buffalo native, she's probably required to include a requisite number of snow stories, since her hometown has become the poster child for such stuff (with Cleveland following close on its snowboot heels). But Pedersen's winter laments can be shared or even topped by anyone who lives in a northern climate. And hearing about the decline, fall and attempted renaissance of a Rust Belt city is nothing new for residents of cities and towns throughout the Northeast and the Midwest. Familiar, too, are the scenes from the streets of 20th-century suburbia (Amherst, N.Y.) and kids playing on vacant lots until they hear their names being called from a backdoor stoop. So, what makes Pedersen's tale unique?

For starters, she has her Scandinavian looks, a combination of Danish and Irish-Scottish-English roots and Jewish godparents, all of which didn't quite mesh with the overwhelmingly Catholic nature of the region. (Not to mention that she was an only child in a neighborhood full of large households.) In an area that boasts the biggest St. Patrick Day's Parade west of Manhattan and the largest Pulaski Day Parade east of Chicago, Pedersen says, "I once asked Dad about the Danish parade, and he said that as far as he knew it was just the two of us, so every time we went outside together it was a parade." Even discounting her heritage, the woman finds herself defying categorization. She is just old enough (with a birth date in 1965) to be considered a member of Generation X instead of the Baby Boomers; but she doesn't quite fit either stereotype. She's almost a woman without a peer group.

She was definitely a child without doting parents. Oh, John and Ellen Pedersen (a court reporter and a nurse, respectively) cared about Laura in their own fashion. But this family lived as if they were three roommates who happened to be sharing the same house. Without the kinds of rules and curfews that her friends had to abide by, Laura grew up pretty much taking care of herself. She was free to skip school whenever she felt like it; free to ride her bike across the Peace Bridge to gamble on horses at a Canadian racetrack; and free to hang out with a favorite high school teacher and his friends at night. To her credit, Pedersen didn't get into as much trouble as she could have, without close parental supervision -- or at least, if she did, she doesn't tell us. Independence and personal responsibility were early lessons for her. But the reader senses that she also quietly yearned for acknowledgement and validation at home as well.

Pedersen's recounting strays away from her own life on occasion. In order to set the stage for the time period, she includes major current events, song and TV show and movie titles, fads and trends. While these details prompt us to remember those days, they sometimes read like mere laundry lists. The best part of the book comes during Pedersen's high school years, when she can regale us with original material and can set aside information about the landmarks in Buffalo or U.S. history.

Buffalo Gal will provide entertainment for anyone who enjoys reading memoir or tales about the Buffalo area. Those who like the region but who would like to delve into an even more unusual childhood should pick up Too Close to the Falls by Catherine Gildiner.

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review by
Corinne H. Smith

29 November 2008

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