There’s a disagreement between the Gerts about Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics. The other Gert has perhaps spent too much time reading about horrible mothers of the European variety (as in Mira Bartok and Vivian Gornick’s books, reviewed here). She was unimpressed by a horrible Canadian one. This Gert found it interesting and original in a way memoirs often aren’t, and above all she liked the fact that Laveau-Harvie (oh, let’s just call her Vicki) is as interested in other people as in herself. She’s able to keep ego-distance from her subject. In her own words, she’s taken the losses on the chin and sold up. I loved this insight early in the book, as she watches her mother putting on an act to charm the hospital staff after her admission with a broken hip:
I am the only one not gazing at my mother. It occurs to me that she is a kind of flesh and blood pyramid scheme, a human Ponzi. You buy in and you are hooked. You have an investment in believing the projections….
I look at them and she looks at me. I know I am the only one who has liquidated the position, the only one to have taken the losses on the chin and sold up. It’s hard to be sure, but I think she knows it too.
Her mother is a cold-blooded, manipulative liar and fantasist, always a mystery to her daughters, and in old age paranoid, a danger to the husband she has isolated from the world and his daughters, deprived of all his will and almost starved to death. Vicki’s sister wants to be validated and vindicated and avenged by having their mother recognised as crazy; her father is suffering what she thinks of as Stockholm syndrome. Vicki just wants to protect her father by keeping her mother away from him. The admission to hospital is their first and only chance, and it isn’t easy. Their “supernaturally persuasive” mother keeps hospital staff in a spin and well-meaning social workers are constantly wrong-footed as her story changes.
The measured Vicki and her hot-blooded, impulsive sister make a good team, even though they’re thousands of miles apart most of the time. Vicki has lived in Sydney for many years, about as far away from Alberta as you can get. She shuttles back and forth over the next few years dealing with her mother’s ploys and the series of dodgy carers they put in place for their father. Of course it’s a book about family, too. Here again she’s able to give that distance, so that her sister and her father have their own stories and are not just part of hers.
In the middle of all this, she’s naturally funny. As the social worker tries to question her tactfully about her supposed criminal past (one of their mother’s stories) she thinks of her father flyfishing:
I’ve watched a master do it. This little bureaucrat is going to have to do better than that.
Arriving in Calgary:
I walk down the concourse of Calgary airport with locals wearing shearling jackets and Stetsons, arms away from the body, wrists loose, like it’s high noon all day long.
And when she travels on a plane with lots of people taking their pets with them for Christmas:
Can you imagine, I hiss, the headlines if we go down over Kicking Horse Pass? ‘Christmas tragedy: plane lost with all on board, including four dogs, three cats, a ferret, a bunny, a toucan and a tortoise, and a partridge in a pear tree’.
A strong theme is the loss of a physical home as well as an emotional one. Laveau-Harvie has said The Rockies are practically a character in the book. The title comes from the trail of gigantic rocks left by the Cordillera Ice Sheet in the Rocky Mountains. One of these is near Okotoks, where her parents live:
Countless years ago the Okotoks Erratic fell in on itself and became unsafe to climb upon. It dominates the landscape, roped off and isolated, the danger it presents to anyone trespassing palpable and documented on the signs posted around it.
It’s the perfect metaphor for their mother. But the book isn’t fixated on damage and danger; it’s full of the kindness, resignation, humour and pragmatism that keeps families going.