With BUFFALO GAL, bestselling author Laura Pedersen has written a side-splitting memoir, chockfull of her trademark humor and familial history.
The setting for Pedersen's early years is Buffalo, a once-robust industrial city (the eighth largest in the United States at the turn of the 20th century) that falls on hard times. Once known as the City of Light, Pedersen dubs it the "City of Blight" in the aftermath of the economic problems of the 1970s. Pedersen recalls how her grandparents, natives of Denmark and Ireland, ended up in the snowy city that in the ultimate of ironies "is the place where air conditioning was invented" and boasts an unrivaled sense of neighborhood and neighborliness. She shares stories of shoveling driveways "just because" --- just because the people of her fair hometown cared for each other and KNEW each other in a way that isn't often seen today.
Pedersen paints a broad history of the region while sharing small details that once again reflect her keen eye and razor-sharp humor. For instance, in talking about the host of various soothsayers, religions and cults that settled at various times in Buffalo and the surrounding towns, she writes about the Shakers that they "first had a village outside Albany where they practiced communal living and celibacy while crafting unornamented, functional finely made furniture. It's difficult to grow a commune while practicing celibacy, so they eventually died out, but not before inventing the clothespin." She missed nothing and makes fun of all, including herself.
Throughout her recollections we meet a host of likable, quirky characters: a grandfather who dreamt of opening a Scandinavian restaurant, a lovesick "nutter" aunt who attempted suicide, and a mother hypersensitive to even the mildest illnesses and medical issues, who had no dirth of gems when it came to health: "Mom said the only good thing about having a small bathroom is that when you are sick and unsure of where the most activity is going to take place, you can sit on the toilet while leaning over to vomit in the tub."
During the 1930s, her grandmother began investing in the stock market --- IBM, Pepsi-Cola, General Motors, AT&T and others. She kept meticulous ledger entries, and they showed that she was a model day trader by "housewife standards." "Armed with only the newspaper, she bought and sold like a professional." Perhaps it was some of that intuitive knowledge that led Pedersen herself to ultimately leave Buffalo --- because "they didn't have a Buffalo Stock Exchange" --- to become the youngest person to have a seat on the American Stock Exchange. "The best traders," she found, "were championship bridge, backgammon, chess and poker players." And so years of beating her family at poker and sneaking off to Canada to play the ponies served her well. At 21, she was a millionaire.
Whenever I think about writing my own life story, I recall the laughs more than anything else, and Pedersen seems to have done the same. Chapter titles alone ("Can't We All Just Get a Lawn?", "When Johnny Comes Typing Home") show that she has an endless reserve of humor. Even when she touches on the town's economic downturn, she remembers the spirit of the people, their loves and devotions, and she does so with wit. Remembering the church changing its mass times, she points out that the folks in her town loved their teams and "God had to change his schedule for the Buffalo Bills."
Describing her grandfather's death, she writes, "Grandpa executed a typically Scandinavian death. One morning shortly before his 89th birthday he said, 'Take me to the hospital. I'm done.'" I echo the sentiment. I'm done. Pedersen's quirky, funny memoir will be my holiday gift of choice this year. Everyone is getting a copy.
--- Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara