‘The Erratics’ Remembers a Mother With a Monstrous Talent for Twisting Reality

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In one scene, a conference is held to decide on the mother’s future. In any other book, it might be a pivotal moment — with the main players assembled, the mother primed for attack, her freedom in the balance — but we get a vague sense of events. The writer confesses that she has no memory of what was said. She recalls only the “quaking, liquefying dread” of being near her mother. At the first sight of her mother, in fact, Laveau-Harvie’s sister tries to run: “She wheels around like a horse catching the scent of a bear upwind and I grab her arm. Don’t move, I whisper. It’s OK.”

She can describe her mother’s handwriting, however: “all confident pointed flourishes, a martial-art-weapons script.” And she prowls among her possessions, her fur coats and china. She dips into the past to present a few examples of bizarre behavior — how her mother once crept up behind her and snipped off her ponytail with a pair of scissors — but there is no full accounting of what it was like to grow up with such a woman, no interest in exploring the sources of her cruelty. As a choice it is unsatisfying, but also curiously mesmerizing: the mother as the glacier, the great governing force in their family life, and still too dominant, too vast to be seen whole.

In its compression and odd omissions, its reluctance to diagnose, this memoir is itself an erratic — an outlier in its genre. Think of the the vivid portraits of the confounding mothers in Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club,” Alison Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?” and Jeanette Winterson’s “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” Those stories are ledgers of silences, persisting confusions and, at times, outright abuses. They are narratives of the mother-daughter bond that rummage deep in the past and carry into the present, as the writer interrogates what it means to wrest possession of the story. “My mother composed me as I now compose her,” Bechdel writes.

How moth-eaten “The Erratics” appears in comparison — and yet, how intriguing is its approach. Laveau-Harvie’s gaze repeatedly curves away from personality to place — to the setting of her childhood: the ice age that deposited the Foothills Erratics Train, the torn wood inlays and cluttered floors of the dilapidated family home, which she navigates, high-stepping, “like a Lipizzan dancing horse,” wondering, with frantic paranoia, if her mother has arranged an ambush. She cannot travel without noting potential fault lines and grinding tectonic plates, without wondering about the water table or dilating on the black earth near active volcanoes — “the lava cooling but still hot and dangerous, just a crust on the top, nothing you would really want to put your weight on. You could drop through into the molten surge below.”

Laveau-Harvie depicts her mother neither as a riddle to be solved nor as a woman to be understood, but as an implacable act of nature, who must only be survived. If she remains a hazy character in the book, she inflects its every sentence, its structure, its aversions. She was a mother with a monstrous talent for twisting reality. In her memoir of the aftermath, her daughter tethers her story to the very ground beneath her. She speaks only of what she can confirm; she moves carefully, finding her footing.

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