Sunday Book Talk: “Buffalo Gal,” by Laura Pedersen

>>Thanks to Anna Jarzab of Authors on the Web for offering me the opportunity to read and review this book – sorry it’s taken so long! (My copy is an ARC; the book was published in October 2008).

Buffalo Gal by Laura Pedersen
Buffalo Gal
Laura Pedersen
Fulcrum Publishing, 2008 (paperback original) (ISBN 1555916929 / 9781555916923)
Memoir, 256 pages

First sentence: “Buffalo, New York, probably turns out more priests and nuns than any other city, except perhaps Rome.” (That’s the first sentence from Chapter One, “God’s Frozen People” – but since there’s a preface, that’s technically not the first sentence in the book. That is: “I was fourteen years old when I first stepped onto the trading floor of the American Stock Exchange in downtown Manhattan.”)

Book description: Growing up in the snowblower society of Buffalo, New York, Laura Pedersen’s first words were most likely “turn the wheel into a skid.” Like many families subsisting in the frigid North during the energy crisis, the Pedersens feared rising prices at the gas pump, argued about the thermostat, fought over the dog to stay warm at night, and often slept in their clothes. While her parents were preoccupied with surviving separation and stagflation, daughter Laura became the neighborhood wild child, skipping school, playing poker, betting on the horses, and trading stocks. Learning how to beat the odds, by high school graduation Pedersen was well prepared to seek her fortune on Wall Street, becoming the youngest person to have a seat on the American Stock Exchange and a millionaire by age 21. Combining laugh-out-loud humor with a slice of social history-her hometown was a flash point for race riots, antiwar protests, and abortion rallies, not to mention bingo, bowling, and Friday night fish fries-Pedersen paints a vivid portrait of an era.

Comments: I’d never heard of Laura Pedersen before I was offered this book for review, but she’s written several novels, and this is actually her second memoir. Her first, Play Money, talked about her career on the American Stock Exchange, where she was the youngest trader in its history and became a millionaire by the time she was 21. This memoir is about how she became the person who did that.

In some respects, this is what I was looking for in the last book I read. Pedersen is roughly my age (three weeks and one day older than my younger sister, actually), and we both grew up in the Northeast, although she somewhat convincingly argues that Buffalo, NY has more in common with Midwestern cities. She clearly remains fond of her hometown, and is aware of how its history has influenced her own. This memoir isn’t just her personal story – it’s also one of the town and times in which she grew up.

The mid-sixties through the early eighties were an odd time to be a kid, in some ways. The world was changing quickly, and we were surrounded by technology and issues that our parents wouldn’t have even imagined when they were our age, but we were too young to experience it all first-hand – we were being kids, and we may have been the last generation to be kids before the computer revolution. I recognized many of the pop-cultural touchstones Pedersen mentions, and yet that also caused me some quibbles with the book – in at least one case, her chronology was wrong. Granted, I was reading an ARC and this might have been corrected in the final copy, but the band Alice in Chains didn’t form until 1987, long after both of us were out of high school, and she referenced them twice. I have to wonder if she meant Alice Cooper, who did use chains in his stage props… If I weren’t such a pop-culture junkie, that wouldn’t have bothered me, but I should note that it didn’t bother me enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book.

Aside from my little quibbles, though, it’s clear that Pedersen is a fine observer, and her account of growing up as the only child of two loving, yet detached, parents in the suburbs of Buffalo is enjoyable from start to finish. She is inventive and resourceful, resilient and self-aware, and uses her well-developed sense of humor very effectively in telling her own story. That story is influenced by her parents, of course – and their long, drawn-out divorce during her teens (as an aside, state laws that make it difficult to get divorced may help “protect marriage,” but they just make the process even more painful for those who decide they must go through it anyway) – but also by her friends, including the girl next door and the gay theater teacher at her high school, and by her city itself.

I liked this book a lot – it’s funny, it’s interesting, it’s well-written, and it’s not just about a life, it’s truly about the “life and times” of Laura Pedersen, 1965-1983. I’m going to keep my eye out for her other books – now that I know her, I’d like to know them, too.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other bloggers’ reviews:
The Printed Page
Not enough books

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link in the comments or e-mail me at 3.rsblog AT Gmail dot com, and I’ll edit this post to include it!

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  1. Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I hope you like it! I linked to Marcia’s review; she enjoyed it quite a bit.

    Cathy – I hope this gives you a nudge to get to it soon, then :-)!

  2. Wow! Laura Pedersen sounds like an amazing woman. Great review, Florinda!

    I wish I could remember whose memoir it was, but I remember one author stating up front that the time line might be a little off because he was writing from his memory, which might not be quite as accurate as his readers would like. That came to mind when you mentioned the Alice in Chains reference.

  3. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I think that if I didn’t remember the same time period quite well myself, I either wouldn’t have been bothered by it, or I wouldn’t have even noticed.

    Laura does indeed sound like a great person to know. I need to start looking for some of her other books.

  4. While these comments come months after all of yours, I too have an ARC copy of this book, and although a bit older then Laura I was in Buffalo during a good portion of the time she writes about. I laughed so hard based on the description of the clothing one wore for the weather at the beginning of the book I caused my bedmate to waken and leave the room. I am truly really enjoying this book. I must note however that the Alice in Chains reference was gnawing at me and I am thrilled to find this also stood out to someone else. I too think she might have meant Alice Cooper, I should check in a final copy.

  5. Marci – Laura came across this review and e-mailed me, and mentioned that the reference was corrected in the final copy :-). Glad you're enjoying the memoir! I just received some of her novels for review.

  6. Florinda — thanks so much for letting me know!!! And how wonderful to know that Laura "checks in" – but then again, that's just one of the things that make Buffalo Gals so special!