This week, Insight writer Sue Sherman discusses the VCE English/EAL text The Erratics.
Canadian born writer Vicki Laveau-Harvie, now living in Australia, made her literary debut in her mid-seventies with a memoir about her highly dysfunctional family. Titled The Erratics, it won the Stella Prize in 2019 (an annual literary award for the best book by an Australian woman published in the previous year). The title refers both to the unpredictable and often lethal rockslides in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (the Rockies), and to the equally random and destructive acts of Vicki’s malevolent mother, who creates a gothic house of horrors for her husband and daughters.
As well as combining the generic features of memoir (with its reminiscences of the author’s past) and the horrors of a gothic tale, Laveau-Harvie seamlessly interweaves elements of ecocriticism, postcolonialism and magic realism into the text, without losing focus on the family drama. Vicki observes the degradation of the environment in the Rockies on one of her return trips to care for her frail, aging father while her mother is hospitalised with a broken hip. Vicki sadly describes the dying fir trees as ‘victims of the Japanese beetle’, which are now able to survive for longer as the winters become warmer, allowing them to wreak serious damage on their hosts. She also reflects on the Calgary Stampede and Rodeo she attended as a child, where dispossessed Canadian First Nations people had become fairground sideshow exhibits. In the final chapter of the memoir, Laveau-Harvie draws upon magic realism, as the spirit of her dead mother converses with Napi, ‘the spirit Wise Man of the Blackfoot people’. Taking place in Vicki’s imagination, this ending suggests the possibility of reconciliation, not just between Vicki and her mother, but also between First Nations peoples and colonisers.
The complexities of the characters and their relationships are reflected in the memoir’s tangled, nonlinear structure. Time lines overlap and verb tenses shift between present, past and future perfect, emphasising the way the past, present and future intersect. Additionally, the omission of quotation marks occasionally blurs the boundaries between dialogue and narrative, while Laveau-Harvie’s authorial comments reflect the blurred boundary between author and character; however, the author is always firmly in control. She reminds readers of this in authorial interventions, such as: ‘Here we are then, in the back story, a year and a half before my mother collapses …’ , or ‘we aren’t there yet’ when indicating a shift backwards in the narrative time line. In drawing attention to the memoir as a literary construct, the text also becomes a metafiction through its deliberate departure from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques. Yet Laveau-Harvie’s direct addresses to her audience also invite them into the narrative in a way that actively engages readers with the story and elicits their sympathy for the author/protagonist.
The most compelling aspects of the memoir, however, are the fraught relationships between the family members at the centre of the narrative. Most of the characters are unnamed, referred to only by the nature of their connection to the family – either as relatives, helpers/carers or professional advisors. Vicki’s mother is a sadist and a liar with an egocentric personality disorder and an uncanny ability to charm strangers. She bullies her husband into submission, alienates his only sibling, turns him against his daughters and tries to starve him to death. Vicki and her sister join forces against her and, in doing so, salvage their own strained relationship. The notion of ‘family’ is subjected to intense scrutiny in this text – with the ‘Hallmark greeting card’ imagery of the ideal family (Vicki’s kindly uncle and aunt) contrasted not only with Vicki’s dysfunctional family but also with twenty-first-century variations, such as the blended family, the single-parent family and the same-sex, childless family, all of which Laveau-Harvie recognises as equally valid. The narrative tension revolves around Vicki’s mother’s attempts to kill her husband and her need to subjugate and shame her daughters. One particularly disturbing detail is the ominous presence within the house of an assault weapon (the rifle), symbolic of the constant threat of violence that surrounds the family. Also disturbing are the often gruesome descriptions of aging – from Vicki’s mother’s deteriorating hip to her father’s sad physical and mental decline. Although the need to care for elderly relatives is a situation common to most families, the ways in which families respond can range from callous neglect to compassionate caring – as shown by the differing attitudes displayed by Vicki and her sister towards their mother and father, compared to those of other families they encounter at different nursing homes.
By contrast, there are moments of humour – albeit somewhat dark – as Vicki’s father’s disinhibition provides great amusement: for example, when the reference to the ‘bottom-line’ reminds him of his suppositories, and when he boasts to Vicki about the size of his penis. There are also passages of poetic description extolling the beauty of the Rockies, which ‘shine, lit from behind where the sun has set, the snow covering them opalescent … as the sapphire heavens deepen, the first star high above shining like a diamond on velvet’. Laveau-Harvie’s language is lyrical as she transports readers to the landscapes of her first home, revealing the emotional ties that bind us to the places where we grew up.
Sample essay topics:
- How does Laveau-Harvie use physical settings to reveal aspects of the characters’ inner selves?
- ‘What happens in the past will inevitably shape the future.’ Is this what Laveau-Harvie’s memoir reveals?
- ‘In The Erratics, Laveau-Harvie suggests that the world is an unpredictable and dangerous place.’ Discuss.
- ‘The Erratics suggests that family is the source of our greatest joy and our greatest sorrow.’ Discuss.
- How does the dominating presence of the Rockies shape the lives of those who live in its shadow?
- Is The Erratics ultimately an uplifting or a depressing story? Explain your reasoning with close reference to the text.
Need more help getting to grips with The Erratics? Make sure you get our Insight Text Guide for The Erratics by Sue Sherman. With a chapter-by-chapter analysis; discussion of characters and relationships; in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values; practice essay topics and much more, the Insight Text Guide for The Erratics provides a clear, comprehensive analysis of the whole text.
Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.
Photo credit: T. Schneeider/shutterstock