Memoirs by women who have overcome adversity always rise to the top of my “To Read” list. I’ve just finished reading two books by very different women from different generations who share a common challenge. Both Laura Chinn and Vicki Laveau-Harvie rose above being raised by difficult or indifferent parents to become successful women in spite of their lack of parenting—one American, one Canadian, one a Gen X, one a baby boomer. Two vastly different lives; two vastly different generations.
A Gen-Xer’s story
Acne, A Memoir by Laura Chinn is not about finding the definitive cure for teenage, adult, or post-menopausal acne. It’s a memoir by a young lady with a surprisingly colourful life who spent far too much time, emotional energy, and money dealing with her own acne issues.
Laura Chinn is one of those people who survived and flourished despite neglectful and minimal parenting. Born to a white mother and black father with an Asian-sounding last name, she falls into that mixed-race category of individuals who often find it difficult to identify with either side. Stories like this always fascinate me and even though Chinn is generations younger than I am, her memoir is an amazing read that I could not put down.
When Chinn’s parents separated, it coincided with the eruption of her first pimple and the beginning of teenage anarchy for the young girl. Her easy-going mother was not a strong woman and allowed Chinn to run wild with questionable friends and acquaintances. She used drugs and marijuana from an early age and was pretty much left to her own devices. Shockingly promiscuous and obviously intelligent, she let her grades slip and eventually dropped out of school.
Laura Chinn rose above acne and various other plagues of youth to become an exceptionally successful and happy individual. She managed to get herself educated and with hard work and ambition eventually built a career as an actress and screen and television writer with credits including Grey’s Anatomy, Children’s Hospital, and The Mick.
Her colourful life bouncing back and forth between California and Florida makes for a great read and insights into a kind of modern life very different from my own. It is is also a reflection on the unanticipated and unspoken damage often inflicted on children when parents separate. I loved this book.
A Baby Boomer’s story
When The New York Times recommends a book you can usually be sure it is worth reading and they weren’t wrong about The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie. She writes about the last three years or so in the life of her parents who most certainly do not qualify as models for Father Knows Best. The title is a metaphor for a difficult relationship between the parents and their two daughters based on a unique prairie geological split rock formation in Okotoks, Alberta, the setting for Laveau-Harvie’s story.
Boomers can relate to the pain and perils of caring for aging parents. The Erratics is a memoir that reads like a novel. Even though the cover clearly states “A Memoir”, I did not realize the book was non-fiction until I had finished reading it and checked reviews on Amazon. I don’t like to read reviews until I have finished reading a book myself and written my own review for BoomerBroadcast because I do not want anything to prematurely colour my judgment. So, I was surprised and embarrassed when I read the reviews after the fact and discovered it was a memoir.
The story begins when the sisters’ elderly mother breaks her hip and is hospitalized leaving the father at home alone and in need of caregiving in their large rural home in Alberta. Despite their parents’ lack of appreciation and acceptance of their daughters, both sisters fly to Calgary and attempt to arrange outside help for their father. Their hope for their mother is that she never returns home, is declared mentally unfit and is committed to an institution for the rest of her days. Sweet.
Laveau-Harvie and her younger sister who is only referred to as “my sister” in the book, had previously been called back to their rural homestead in Alberta when their ninety-year-old mother suggested their father might be dying. Hard feelings resulting from unknown childhood traumas have broken the bond between the parents and the two siblings, so visits are rare and strained.
Vicki lives in Australia and her sister lives with her partner in Vancouver. They attempt to manage their parents’ affairs from a distance as best they can in spite of being written out of the will and being barely on speaking terms with their mother and father. An acquaintance of the parents has been named executor of their estate which is estimated to be considerable thanks to the father’s long-time executive career at an oil company before he retired.
Their narcissistic mother is portrayed as being somewhat mad and manipulative as well as being a pathological liar. In the eyes of her daughters, she is bent on killing their father. She is a vicious, cold woman who continually denounces her daughters and often refuses to acknowledge their very existence. What I found most disappointing about an otherwise excellent book is the lack of background about the mother and both sisters when they were growing up. The memoir for the most part covers only the three-year period near the end of their parents’ lives.
It is mentioned that their mother once taught at a university in Nova Scotia. What did she teach? She must have come from a good family to be able to have achieved academic credentials during times when few people in Canada completed post-secondary or even secondary school education. What happened to the sisters that was so traumatic? Why was their mother so evil and mean? What happened in her own childhood? These vital back-stories are missing and this lack of information kept me engrossed and turning the pages in search of an answer.
Anyone who has cared for an aging parent, who has arranged for seniors or nursing home accommodation or handled their end-of-life issues knows that it is a stressful, unrewarding, and often a soul-destroying task. Endless conflicts arise about the care involved, the distribution of assets, the dissolving of the family home, and inevitable conflicts with siblings about these and countless other issues. Vicki and her sister experience them all.
The Erratics is beautifully written and I enjoyed it immensely but it could have been even better if more background information had been provided. The ending was anti-climatic and left me feeling a bit empty. Still, I highly recommend the book. It is relatable, insightful, and at times humorous. Written with a distinctly Canadian voice, I think any baby boomer would find it a worthwhile read.
Both books are also a commentary on the damage inflicted on children by parents who stayed together and perhaps should have separated, or conversely, separated and damaged their children. There is no right answer. Both authors presented fascinating perspectives.
If you are unable to obtain these books at your local bookstore or library, they are available at an excellent price on Amazon. To order The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie, click here. To order Acne by Laura Chinn, click here. Disclosure: I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you for your support.