The Erratics is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Setting is a literary element that refers to the context of where a story takes place, usually alluding to the time and location. Your expectations of a story that takes place in Victorian England would differ greatly from a story set in late 2000s Australia, showing us that the historical, social and geographical aspects of the setting shape the meaning of the text.
In the memoir The Erratics, the setting plays a vital role in Vicki Laveau-Harvie's storytelling. From the beginning of the novel, Laveau-Harvie uses both the title and prologue to foreground the importance of the Okotoks Erratic (a geographical phenomenon in Alberta, Canada) to establish the role that place and belonging have played in her life. Further reinforcing the importance of the setting, the memoir’s narrative follows Laveau-Harvie’s experience flying back to Alberta, Canada (her hometown), after having moved to and started a new life in Australia.
Why Focus on Setting When Writing a Text Response?
The setting can be useful evidence to have in your repertoire as it helps you show that you not only have an understanding of the ideas of the text but also how those ideas are constructed. When looking at the criteria you will be marked against in the end-of-year exam you will see that to score a 7 and above in Section A you need to consider the ‘construction’ of the text (read more here). Construction refers to your ability to discuss the parts that make up a text through the use of metalanguage as evidence to support your views. The setting is just one of the ways you can address construction in The Erratics, but, as a text so focused on physical environments, it’s a good type of metalanguage to start with.
Famous for producing Justin Bieber and maple syrup, Canada has a similar history to Australia. Canada has an Indigenous population who inhabited the land for thousands of years before British and French expeditions came and colonised the land. In the 1700s, due to various conflicts, France ceded most of its North American colonies while the United Kingdom stayed. Over time the country gained greater autonomy and, like Australia, it is now a constitutional monarchy with a prime minister but recognises the British royal family as its sovereign. Further mirroring Australia, Canada also has a colonial past that it is still reckoning with as recent headlines about the human remains of hundreds of Indigenous people at a residential school reminds us.
Vicki is specifically from Alberta, and the majority of the novel is about her experiences returning there after having moved to Australia (at the start of the memoir she had been estranged from her parents for 18 years). Known for its natural beauty and its nature reserves, Alberta is a part of Western Canada. Alberta is one of only two landlocked provinces in Canada which is interesting considering that Vicki leaves it for a country famous for its beaches and coastal cities.
When annotating the text, highlight the descriptions of the setting. You’ll notice that when Laveau-Harvie describes Alberta or Canada as a whole she presents the country as being dangerous and hostile. An example of this is the blunt statement that the ‘cold will kill you. Nothing personal’. However, Laveau-Harvie does find some solace in the landscape, observing the beauty of the ‘opalescent’ peaks and the comfort in predictable seasons.
Vicki’s Parent’s Home
The first description Laveau-Harvie gives us of her family home is to call it ‘Paradise, [with] twenty acres with a ranch house on a rise, nothing between you and the sky and the distant mountains.’ The idyllic image foregrounds the natural landscape but is then immediately juxtaposed with the description of the home as a ‘time-capsule house sealed against the outside world for a decade’. This description heightens Vicki’s mother and father’s isolation from the outside world and alludes to the hostility of the home that is reaffirmed with the doors that ‘open to no one’. The family home becomes an extended metaphor for Vicki’s parents themselves, with the description of it as a ‘no-go zone’, hinting at the sisters’ estrangement from their parents who have shut them out.
Moreover, the land the house sits on does not produce any crops despite it being such a large expanse of land, heightening the home’s disconnect from the natural world. This detachment from the natural world is furthered by her labelling her parents as ‘transplants from the city’ and contrasting them to locals who ‘still make preserves in the summer’. Vicki’s mother in particular is at odds with nature due to materialism, such as her wardrobes being full of fur coats.
The Erratics + Napi
In the prologue we are introduced to the Okotoks Erratic as being situated in ‘a landscape of uncommon beauty’ with the Erratic itself being something that ‘dominates the landscape, roped off and isolated, the danger it presents to anyone trespassing palpable’. The memoir then immediately shifts to Vicki’s experience in the hospital trying to convince the staff that she is her mother’s daughter, drawing a parallel between the dominating and dangerous landscape to the dominating and dangerous mother. In the memoir, the Erratic is an extended metaphor for the mother with both the land and the mother being described as ‘unsafe’, ‘dominat[ing]’ and a ‘danger’. Moreover, the structural choice of opening the novel with the Erratic makes its presence felt throughout the novel even though it is not mentioned again until the end of the text.
In contrast to the prologue, the epilogue has a feeling of peace and reconciliation as the mother and what she has represented to her family is reconciled with the landscape. This is particularly pertinent as the geographical and spiritual origins of the rock revealed in the epilogue is a story of stability after a rupture. This alludes to the ability of Vicki’s family to heal after the trauma inflicted on them by the mother. The epilogue could also be understood as a reminder of humanity's insignificance in the face of nature and larger forces, as represented by Napi.
While Laveau-Harvie does not directly address Canada's colonial past in her memoir outside of the inclusion of Napi, the colonial presence is felt throughout the memoir through the setting of both Australia and Canada. These settings allude to how living on stolen land means that while individuals - particularly middle-class, white individuals - may not always recognise and address the colonial history of the land they live on, the fact that land was never ceded is still felt.
As discussed before, Canada and Australia are similar as they are both former British colonies that are now constitutional monarchies, so why would Vicki want to move to a place that is similar to where she already lived and experienced trauma?
There are a few potential answers, the first being the geographical distance. There are over 1300kms between Sydney and Alberta and, considering the trauma Vicki and her sister have experienced, it stands to reason that she would want to put distance between her childhood home and her adult life. This leads to the second reason, travelling to ‘Far flung places’ as a method to deal with trauma. While in Canada, Vicki reminisces about the ‘boozed-up Brits on Bondi’ that embodies her life in Australia. The evocative, alliterative image creates a stark contrast between warm and carefree Australia and cold and emotionally taxing Canada, reinforcing how travelling provides individuals with a means to survive their traumatic childhoods and create new lives for themselves.
When writing about setting you do not need to be an expert in geography. As this blog post has shown, to understand Laveau-Harvie’s use of setting in The Erratics you only need to know about two countries, so next time you write a text response, consider using your understanding of setting to show your teacher or examiners that you’ve thought about the text’s construction.
If you'd like to dive deeper into this text, Zac breaks down key themes and quotes in The Erratics over on this blog.