English & EAL

Breaking Down Themes & Key Quotes in The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

Zac Goldsmith

February 15, 2024

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The Erratics is usually studied in the Australian curriculum as a Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Within the intimate Albertan landscape of her memoir, The Erratics, author Vicki Laveau-Harvie guides her readers through the inhospitable terrain that marked her family environment. Laveau-Harvie’s memoir is complex, showcasing the complicated dynamics that arise within her dysfunctional family. Understanding the ideas and values that underpin these family tensions is crucial to scoring well in The Erratics, which is why this blog will break down the key themes and quotes to help you analyse the memoir. 


  • Family & Trauma
  • Truth & Perspective
  • Ageing
  • Choice & Agency

Family & Trauma

Family lies at the heart of The Erratics. Both sisters spent their childhoods navigating the hostile familial setting fostered by their mother’s turbulent behaviour, resulting in a profound trauma that manifests itself in their present lives. The ways in which they manage this trauma, whilst reestablishing a connection with their family, is a core aspect of Laveau-Harvie’s memoir. 

‘We’ve been disowned and disinherited…When something bad happens to them, we’ll know soon enough and we’ll deal with it together. I don’t realise at the time, but when I say that, I imply care. I imply there may be something to salvage. I misspeak. But I’m flying there anyhow. So is my sister. Blood calls to blood. What can I tell you?’ (p. 17) 

From the outset, Laveau-Harvie asserts the underlying tension of her memoir. Having established her mother to be as ‘mad as a meat-axe’ in the first chapter, the reader may find Laveau-Harvie’s decision to return to Canada bizarre, to say the least. However, for Vicki the choice makes sense, having promised her sister that she will return to support her when ‘something bad happens’. 

Laveau-Harvie suggests that people cannot completely separate themselves from their blood relations, and that most importantly, a moral obligation to one’s family and self-preservation are not mutually exclusive. Rather, she suggests that there exists a ‘precarious balance’ between these commitments and that one’s family cannot be ignored in times of need, because, ultimately, ‘blood calls to blood’. 

‘...everybody knows a family Christmas will always go badly, that even the most extremely lowered family expectations will not be met. Magazines publish the same articles…year after year, on why we harbour these wildly unrealistic expectations of family unity.’ (p. 54)

Laveau-Harvie challenges the ‘wildly unrealistic expectations’ of familial culture depicted in countless generations of Canadian magazines. She uses the imagery of a ‘family Christmas…go[ing] badly’ to dismantle the idea of a traditionally wholesome festive season, suggesting that such compassion is inaccessible in the presence of her mother’s ‘mercurial’ personality.

Additionally, Laveau-Harvie’s insistence that ‘everybody knows a family Christmas will always go badly’ is immediately juxtaposed by the gracious dinner she shares with her friends. Laveau-Harvie appreciates how they ‘light up their properties in such joyous fashion’ relative to the ‘Hotel California’ her parents reside in. Thus, Laveau-Harvie invites her readers to reflect upon the value she places on this fulfilment of familial duty; how all it takes is an act of selfless humanity to restore (to some extent) the vision that ‘family unity’ is not ‘unrealistic’, but rather, completely possible. 

'...the giant Douglas fir…It has prospered, cutting off the view of the Rockies…even though it should have never flourished…The tree is full of tiny birds, red-breasted nuthatches who live in it year-round…' (p. 42)

Laveau-Harvie uses the Douglas fir as a symbol of survival, emblematic of the extraordinary circumstances under which she was able to 'flourish'. Laveau-Harvie recounts her numerous travels throughout the memoir – Canada, Australia and Hong Kong – her decision to 'opt for geography' acting as a means of self-preservation, placing distance between herself and her family (in particular, her mother). It is made clear from the prologue that the Okotoks Erratic foothills, also called the Rockies, are a motif for the indomitable presence of the mother (see here for more on setting in The Erratics) from which Laveau-Harvie escapes.

Hence when the Douglas fir is described to have '[cut] off the view of the Rockies' it conveys Laveau-Harvie’s success in physically removing herself from the hostile family setting she was trapped in. However, note that Laveau-Harvie’s geographical location does not relieve her of her trauma – she openly explains how she 'walk[s] like an invalid through life'. Regardless of this, Laveau-Harvie 'prosper[s]…even though [she] should have never flourished', parenting kind and compassionate children ('tiny birds') of her own despite the immeasurable anguish she endured during her own childhood. Thus, Laveau-Harvie demonstrates the capacity to break a vicious cycle of trauma created by her mother, instead using her own 'principle of pre-emptive karma' to limit passing on her grief.

Truth & Perspective

A reflection of a specific six-year period of her life, Laveau-Harvie uses her memoir to explore the multifaceted nature of truth, how a shared experience can give rise to varying perspectives and responses. An intimate piece of storytelling in its own right, The Erratics is a platform from which Laveau-Harvie urges the reader to discover their own truth, whilst cherishing a balanced view of reality 

'This is not untrue. My sister feels differently. She has her truth and I have mine but she isn’t the one doing the talking right now.' (p. 12)

Consistently throughout The Erratics, Laveau-Harvie emphasises the differences between the sisters, and the varying extents to which their past trauma has affected and damaged them. She suggests that despite a shared upbringing, with the same malignant presence of their mother, one’s perspective is unique to the individual. It also raises discussion about the truth the reader is presented in the memoir. As the author, Laveau-Harvie guides her readership through events as they pertain to her memory - the subjectivity of her memoir is something Laveau-Harvie openly admits to her readers. 

Regardless, there are clear distinctions between how the sisters respond to their trauma. The sister struggles to 'negate a past that haunts her', feeling 'the blows of the past continuously in her present'. Conversely, Laveau-Harvie’s past 'is not merely faded…it’s not there', with many of her memories repressed to help her survive her anguish. Thus, Laveau-Harvie affirms how one’s response to trauma is dependent on the individual, how one’s truth is often adapted to their needs in order to survive. 

'The aurora borealis are fading. Well, he says, show’s over. Gotta see a man about a dog. You should move on too. You’ll have more scope now, for the good stuff. He waves his arm. Wider view, he says. Farther reach. But only for the good stuff.' (p. 217)

Bookending her memoir with the geological construction and spiritual origins of the Okotoks Erratic foothills, Laveau-Harvie ultimately uses her memoir as a reflective process that helps her find 'closure' towards her mother’s legacy. Initially conveying her mother’s menace through the 'danger' of the Rockies, Laveau-Harvie’s connection with the Albertan landscape helps her see hope within the 'landscape of uncommon beauty'. Her mother’s life 'tainted' by mental illness, Laveau-Harvie comes to an understanding that her behaviour, much like the harshness of the Canadian winter, was 'nothing personal'. Thus, upon her mother’s death, Laveau-Harvie crafts an intimate interaction between her mother and Napi the Trickster, closing her memoir with the hopeful wish that her mother now lives a life with 'wider view…farther reach…but only for the good stuff'. Hence, in a final act of forgiveness, Laveau-Harvie honours the life of her mother, whose potential was tarnished by mental illness. 

'My sister says her suburb is working-class; she also tells me that she considers herself working-class…I try to make her see that we have sprung desperately from a violently aspirational upper-middle-class background, and that I see that as part of the greater malaise we live with.' (p. 186)

Laveau-Harvie continues to emphasise the differences between her and her sister, with one focus being how their values have developed in response to their trauma. There is a clear difference between the sisters when they discuss their definitions of ‘working-class’; the sister argues that she and her suburb are working-class, defined by 'having a job'. Contrastingly, Laveau-Harvie 'tr[ies] to make her see that [they] have sprung…from a violently aspirational upper-middle-class background', and expresses some concern towards her societal status being 'part of the greater malaise [they] live with'. 

The sister chooses to identify as 'working-class', thereby highlighting how her parent’s obsession with the accumulation of material wealth has influenced her perception of class and privilege. Amassing an 'impressive wall of properties', the sister parallels her father’s 'pride…at the sight of watching his wife spend big'. On the other hand, Laveau-Harvie openly acknowledges her family’s privilege but instead perceives it as a 'malaise' and chooses to separate herself from any degree of avarice. Thus, the reader is invited to reflect upon the differences between the sisters’ perspectives, how the sister may still be in thrall to her parent’s values, whereas Laveau-Harvie’s sense of self is inextricably linked to the natural landscape over material possessions. 


Many characters that feature in Laveau-Harvie’s memoir are elderly, and experience a unique set of challenges that only comes with the ageing process. The mother and the father, for example, both endure deteriorating health conditions that compromise their independence and autonomy. As such, Laveau-Harvie offers an interesting insight into what it’s like to observe and deal with ageing parents who struggle to accept the limits of their age. 

'My father is looking far away, back in a moment when life was excitement and danger and possibilities…’ (p. 91)

Laveau-Harvie’s father often finds himself reminiscing over his past, reflecting on war-time memories or the wealth he accumulated from his work in the oil industry. Although, Laveau-Harvie does suggest to her readers that these stories become more exaggerated each time they are told, highlighting the difficulty the father has in coping with his ageing body. Laveau-Harvie illustrates how the ageing process inevitably incurs a loss of independence and autonomy, and uses the characterisation of her father to emphasise the challenge of reconciling with this isolating experience. 

By 'looking far away, back in a moment when life was excitement and danger and possibilities', Vicki’s father uses his memories to retain the feeling that 'he’s twenty and bullet-proof'. Reminiscing over his act of heroism during the war, the father commends himself for the 'precise calculations' that enabled him and his copilot to perform a 'remarkable manoeuvre'. Thus Laveau-Harvue uses this hyperbolic description of her father’s story to reveal how elderly people must often depend upon their past memories to maintain a sense of autonomy in the present. 

Laveau-Harvie suggests that elderly individuals such as her father must 'confront the real' in accepting that the ageing process will physically hinder their independence, leaving them to feel rejected by their own bodies. Hence, Laveau-Harvie exposes her readers to how the ageing process can be an inherently challenging experience for elderly individuals to accept. 

'It happens, they say. With older people They come to, and a whole married life of disappointment and bitterness slips out, like an organ escaping an incision, like a balloon filled with acid. It bursts on impact, burning holes in their spouses’ clothing and leaving little round scars on their flesh that never heal completely.' (p. 19)

There are many marriages and long-term relationships mentioned throughout the memoir: the mother and the father, the aunt and the uncle and the sister and her partner. Even Laveau-Harvie herself is divorced from 'the father of [her] children'. Laveau-Harvie acknowledges the difficulty in maintaining these types of relationships; how they are often marked by histories that invariably include events that are never resolved or forgiven. Laveau-Harvie explores this notion through her use of metaphor, likening the 'bitterness' of unresolved conflict to 'a balloon filled with acid…burst[ing] on impact'. Here, she asserts the importance of forgiveness in a long-term relationship, affirming its capacity to maintain and restore compassion, love and empathy. 

Moreover, Laveau-Harvie suggests that in the absence of forgiveness, marital conflicts are left to foster 'disappointment and bitterness' that is released when people enter elderly life. Laveau-Harvie conveys how the 'burning holes' in a long-term relationship can compromise its stability, leaving 'little round scars…that never heal completely' - thereby reinforcing the feelings of isolation and despondency endured by The Erratic’s elderly characters. Thus, Laveau-Harvie reinforces the value of forgiveness, how a willingness to empathise with a partner, especially early in a relationship, can minimise the 'bitterness' experienced when one ages. 

'We’re like the king and the queen, my uncle says, every time we see any of them, whenever they visit. Like the king and the queen. They smile at the fullness of their life: love and problems, success and loss, pride and a hefty measure of grief. A well-worn life fully lived, perspectives widening with each new baby, blossoming like one of those paper flower buds that unfold into unexpected beauty when you plunge them into water. ' (p. 86) 

With Laveau-Harvie’s parents at the forefront of the memoir, it seemingly appears that she depicts only a grim image of old age. Whilst she does offer these insights, Laveau-Harvie also portrays the emotionally rich and satisfying life lived by her ageing aunt and uncle. 'Smil[ing] at the fullness of their life', the aunt and the uncle 'peer endearingly' over their extended family. Their 'perspectives widening with each new baby', Laveau-Harvie also uses the virtuous imagery of her aunt and uncle to emphasise the value of an emotionally rich elderly life. 

Metaphorically referred to as 'the king and the queen', Laveau-Harvie uses the connotations of royalty imbued in this metaphor to emphasise the richness of a life spent in a nurturing family environment, where widening perspectives help ageing individuals find a 'fullness' in their life despite the 'hefty measure of grief' endured. Thus, Laveau-Harvie juxtaposes her aunt and uncle’s willingness to engage with family against her parent’s 'disown[ment] and disinherit[ment]' of their daughters. 

Choice & Agency

Throughout their lives, the sisters have suffered immeasurable trauma at the hands of their parent’s decisions. Yet, despite this, the two daughters demonstrate that they possess a strength of character capable of making the most difficult of decisions. Laveau-Harvie explores the significance of employing one’s agency in reconnecting with, and restoring, familial relationships. 

'It means always try to do the decent thing, the rational thing, the selfless thing, the boring thing, because then you won’t have to beat yourself up with guilt until your early stress-induced death…Do nothing you know you will live to regret.' (p. 80)

'Tattoo[ed]' 'on the corner of [her] soul', the philosophy to live without regret is permanently engrained as part of Laveau-Harvie’s character, a testament to the integrity she holds that allows her to make the difficult decision to return to Canada and reconcile with her trauma. Laveau-Harvie fully understands the challenges, and even dangers, she would be facing upon her return. Despite having been disinherited two decades prior, and entirely aware of her mother’s volatility, Laveau-Harvie ultimately chooses to use her agency and confront, reconcile and heal from her past.

Interestingly, Laveau-Harvie’s sister also exhibits similar behaviour. When her mother is hospitalised, the sister also returns to Alberta; she takes upon herself several responsibilities involving the cleaning and organising of her parent’s house (which ultimately risks her life as she triggers an angioedema attack). This therefore invites the reader to reflect upon the sister’s willingness to do 'the selfless thing[s]' necessary to help her family; and perhaps suggests that to live with no regrets is a philosophy shared by two sisters 'petrified by grief'. 

'I reminded her that Dad went along with my mother in disinheriting us, removing any right we had to help him in his old age; that, most hurtfully of all, he believed everything she told him about us, even though he now holds other views. It is as a result of his own inability to act that he now barely has a connection with us and has none whatsoever with his grandchildren.' (p. 187)

When the reader is first introduced to the father, they are met with the imagery of a frail old man suffering from a starvation diet enforced by his cruel and narcissistic wife. However, as the memoir progresses, Laveau-Harvie limits the reader’s sympathy towards her father, who she instead affirms is a victim of his own design. Laveau-Harvie holds her father accountable for the passiveness that perpetuated the mother’s unpredictable behaviour. Illustrating how her father 'went along with [the] mother in disinheriting' herself and her sister, Laveau-Harvie challenges the extent to which her father’s intervention could have mitigated the devastating 'swathe of misery' cast by the mother. Therefore, Laveau-Harvie asserts the power of one’s voice, suggesting that had her father employed his agency then perhaps the extent of his daughters’ trauma could have been minimised. 

'There are the dangers and difficulties you summon up the courage to deal with physically, every day, in the lab or the forest, and then there are the blows that fall from the air, unseen, unpredictable, but nonetheless brutal and crippling. Confronting the real makes you a person of substance; fending off the invisible light that always blindsides you makes you Chicken Little, hoping to absorb a little warmth from the lights on the tree.' (p. 65)

'Confronting the real', Laveau-Harvie demonstrates that to begin the healing process and reconcile with the past, one must make the difficult choice to 'summon up the courage to deal with…the blow that fall from the air'. Upon her return to Canada, Laveau-Harvie faces the 'unseen' and 'unpredictable' challenges her mother has imposed. She deals with the web of lies spun by her mother, the bureaucracy of the hospital workers and her starved father’s declining health. However, despite the overwhelming trauma of her past and the challenge of being reunited with her parents, Laveau-Harvie ultimately chooses to use her agency and 'confront the real', enduring the 'brutal and crippling' blows along the way. 

Want to dive deeper into this text? Check out our blog post on Understanding the Symbolic Nature of Setting in The Erratics. 

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