Book Review of Kate Beaton’s Graphic Memoir, ‘Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands’
Beaton, a gifted Canadian cartoonist, burst onto the scene about 15 years ago with her popular history and literature webcomic, “Hark! A vagrant. Since then, she has published collections of her “Hark! humor, which deftly mixes jabs at famous men of patriarchal privilege (see, for example, his takedowns of Andrew Jackson) with applause for heroic but unrecognized women (among them Ida B. Wells). She also created picture books such as “The Princess and the Pony,” which spawned an Apple TV Plus animated series.
Beaton’s moving masterpiece, “Ducks”, his first graphic memoir, documents a period of his life – from 2005 to 2008 – before his comics brought him to public attention. Avoiding the aloof irony that characterized many of his “Vagrant” comics, this is 2022’s most gripping graphic memoir, delivering an unflinching account of a personal trial against a nation in economic flux.
Beaton hails from Cape Breton Island on Canada’s east coast, where coal was once king; the industry’s dwindling fortunes also dashed the financial hopes of Nova Scotians (“We’re fiddles and lobster,” she says of her home province) and neighboring Newfoundlanders (“accordions and cod”). Lives are calibrated to regional boom and bust trends.
“I learn, at twenty-one, that all work is good work,” wrote Beaton. “Even bad work is good work; you are lucky to have it. As oil prices soar and job opportunities open up in Alberta, she sees a way to “break that weighted anchor” of about $40,000 in student debt.
Yet where did she land?
When she shows up at a Syncrude company tool store, Katie must face the dehumanizing reality of working in an environment where the gender ratio is around 50 to 1. And while the resilient Katie moves from job site to job site in the tar sands—adapting to the social dynamics of different places—Beaton expertly portrays the complexities of operating in misogynistic spaces, where sexual harassment is common. “All you need here is to be a woman,” Katie realizes. “You stand out, and that’s all it takes…and someone thinks they like you. But it doesn’t do me any good. It makes me feel like I’m not even a person.
Beaton also points to the effects of the energy industry on animals, sometimes treating them as metaphors for the human toll of the companies that employed it. Reflecting on the East Bank, Katie sings a song about the coal industry, in which the ponies are made to “pull until they almost break their backs”. And in Alberta, she reports, the oil industry makes headlines when hundreds of ducks die after landing in the “toxic sludge” of a Syncrude tailings pond. These waterfowl, she suggests, have become as mired in mud as workers are in oil sands cultivation.
In this oily setting that puts so many birds at risk, the reader worries for Katie all the more when a colleague casually calls her “canky”.
Beyond his own struggles, Beaton offers a broader perspective on a brutal improvisational culture that leaves some workers stressed, depressed and lonely. In the afterword to “Ducks” — which she began creating in 2016 — Beaton views camp life with deep empathy, weighing how the individual can be crushed by the methods and mechanisms of Big Energy. In Beaton’s experience, the Alberta labor camps were an “encapsulated society” that presented challenges of all kinds. Some workers turned to alcohol and cocaine to cope; others were fired if they asked employees for help, she shows – when a real discussion about mental health “barely existed”.
“The industry has prided itself on having millions of hours without lost time incidents,” she writes, “while hiding the human wreckage.”
Going deeper and deeper into her own experiences, Beaton poignantly captures how she and her colleagues shouldered the burden of working in the oil sands. It’s not until Katie flees Syncrude that she realizes how much – and for how long – she’s swallowed her dignity in the service of survival. Beaton also walks us through his other accomplishments over time, including how Alberta’s oil company operates on stolen land – just one aspect of how the indigenous peoples of the region have been exploited.
Throughout “Ducks,” Beaton’s pen conveys a brooding sense of displacement. Camp life can seem as grim as the monochromatic grays of the book, and we encounter so many stoic faces that we begin to wonder what’s behind a co-worker’s sudden smile. She also retreats from time to time, drawing sweeping panoramas of the landscape that remind us of natural beauty (ah, the Northern Lights) amid towering cranes and chimneys – an aesthetic showdown over what will survive.
Beaton respects the fact that many people – many families – have positive associations with the Canadian oil industry. “Ducks” provides a complex picture of a specific era, not a simple critique.
“Everyone’s tar sands are different,” she writes, “and these were mine.”
Michael Cavna is the creator of the Post’s Comic Riffs column and graphic novel reviewer for Book World.
Two years in the oil sands
Drawn and quarterly. 436 pages. $39.95
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