I am beginning this review with two caveats. First, I am a mother of a daughter who works in the trades and while she has not worked in Fort McMurray, she has experienced many of the same behaviors that Kate Beaton confronted in her two years in the camps. Second, I am an Albertan who has visited both the city and the camps in the oil field areas numerous times. Throughout the several readings of this graphic novel I was reminded again and again of the stories from my daughter and the observations I took away on my short visits. The contradictions innate in the oil-rich area around Fort McMurray has become better known outside of Canada in recent years, but it has always been controversial for the Canadian culture, economy, and, more even more recently, politically.
This was an amazing read, one that I highly recommend for everyone but especially for young women going forward in a disastrous misogynist society. Beaton’s memoir explores through her dialogue a myriad of complex issues including abuse of economic and human resources, lack of respect for the Indigenous inhabitants and culture, sexual harassment and rape, commodification, environmental destruction, isolation, and personal identity. These conversations, and graphic novel, begin with the home life she had before leaving her small town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to travel across the country for lucrative jobs in the oil sands of Alberta to pay down student loans. She was 21, naïve and unknowing, when she arrived. Her readers, through her bleak illustrations and chronological recording, journey with her in her personal discoveries of the enormity of the environmental tolls on the land and the people who work at the various sites.
When hundreds of ducks are snagged in a hazardous tailings pond and a co-worker dies in an onsite accident, Beaton becomes highly cognisant of the global and environmental consequences of the tar sands and camp life. At the same time, she must also contend with the rampant sexism, sexual harassment, and crassness of many of her male co-workers and bosses who have also come from away (the Maritime provinces). Her use of dialogue is effortless and natural, bringing the various characters to life, including Kate herself. There are flashes of subtle and wry humor that provide a welcome balance to the reading experience. Her use of muted grays and the proliferation of wordless panels exemplify the vastness of the landscape and the giant machinery. Beaton’s layout of mostly small panels emphasized the confined environment for the workers and herself. Her illustrations of the interiors reveal the limited spaces and rooms crammed with bed bunks, other furniture, and tools. These interiors are in direct contrast to the vastness of the exterior landscape and sky that she brings to life so effectively, often is full page spreads.
The isolation, loneliness, bleak lifestyle, and the lack of normalcy take its toll on the people in the camps. Some people handle it admirably, but so many were physically exhausted and mentally stressed in living conditions as foreign as the landscape. Her portrayal of the people she encounters and the experiences she has had in the various camps is candidly sincere. She relies on her own acute observations, underlining her personal connections with the people, land, and machinery. The graphic novel is commendably honest. The responses to the fate of the ducks contrasted to those of the Indigenous health and land concerns and the mental health of the migratory workers within and without the boundaries of the oil industry was frightening and telling. The repercussions of this willingness to overlook the dangers of the oil fields because of commercial gain underlies her novel but Beaton is never didactic in her remarks. This is a story that honors critical thinking on behalf of readers.
Beaton suffers through several horrendous experiences but maintained her humanity with her online connections and her creation and postings of Hark! A Vagrant webcomics. Her homepage for the webcomic eventually garnered half a million visitors each month and led to the publication of her first picture book, The Princess and the Pony and the printed collections of Hark! The story ends with hope as Beaton pays off her loan and returns to Cape Breton and her newly found career as a successful cartoonist. Here too, unfortunately, there is another repercussion of her time in Alberta. Becky, her sister who also worked in the oil sands, is diagnosed with cancer. Beaton writes about this in her afterword and later in an article for New York Magazine’s The Cut discussing the failure of the medical world in responding to Becky’s symptoms seriously in much the same way as the suffering of other workers and the Indigenous were treated with silence in previous decades.
Honest investigative reports from journalists and books such as Ducks help illuminate that silence and deserve a large audience. Highly recommended for high school students with a caveat regarding the inclusion of sexual abuse and mental distress. This is an essential purchase for public libraries and highly recommended for academic libraries as well.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
By Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Canadian, Character Representation: Canadian,