Vicki Laveau-Harvie was raised on a ranch near Okotoks, though she left as soon as she could, eventually settling in Australia. Now in her 70s, she has published her first book, a memoir of her return to Alberta to deal with the crisis facing her aging parents. It’s no run-of-the-mill reunion: The Erratics is an intense story of how two disinherited sisters struggle to deal with their own emotions while protecting their father from their manipulative and abusive mother.
First published in Australia, where in 2019 it won the Stella Prize (a major literary award celebrating women writers), the memoir is superbly crafted, though for many it may not be easy reading. The conflicts and estrangements between the mad mother, the ailing and confused father, the hurt and angry sister, and the frustrated yet stoic narrator generate a turbulence of emotions—grief, rage, misunderstanding and sometimes a bit of a smile. We are far, far away from the trope of the noble cowboy and Alberta’s ranchlands as a pure and hearty landscape; there is more than a passing resemblance to the prairie gothic novel in this memoir.
Written in clipped, short sentences with occasional metaphoric flourishes, the narrative evokes ranchlands society, where conversation is taut and sparse. The words convey a complex family dynamic driven by a maniacal mother’s ability to mislead others with fanciful tales, a father’s weak-willed response and a sister’s traumatized past. The narrator embeds herself in the story as a voice in search of sanity. As the title alludes, that’s a complicated quest. “Erratics” are solitary monoliths deposited by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age. One such giant rock was left behind near Okotoks, and Laveau-Harvie suggests that her family should be viewed the way erratics are—deposited entities standing alone and unrelated, grotesque anomalies in the landscape.
Inevitably one-sided, the truth value of this and all memoirs needs to be questioned. Yet memoirs as well written as this one can be enthralling; we may be forgiven for listening unquestioningly to its singular voice. I found the text gives ordinary, everyday domesticity a mythological power. While the story told here can be disturbing, it is genuinely awesome in how it captures the full range of human responses to end-of-life events. It holds up a mirror to those trying circumstances when children must parent parents while caught between social ideals and private realities. Nobody comes out a saint. The book made me reflect on my own history of dealing with my aging parents and their infirmities, always wondering if I had done the right thing.
—George Melnyk is an author, editor and historian in Calgary.