Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands

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
ISBN: 9781770462892

Publisher Age Rating: Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Character Representation: Canadian,

Batter Royale

Rose is an amateur baker working as a waitress in a small town restaurant. When she makes a special dessert for a food critic, she is invited to participate in a baking competition with her childhood friend Fred. This isn’t an ordinary competition though as the contestants are faced with obstacle courses, sabotage, and surprise ingredients like brussel sprouts.

Rose is motivated to win the grand prize in order to attend college at a prestigious cooking school. She is also dealing with her parents’ eminent divorce, her developing feelings for Fred, and a rival who is willing to do anything to prove herself to be the best. It’s no wonder she finds herself distracted and just managing to stay off the bottom in the competition. 

This story has all the feelings of a Hallmark romcom. The author/illustrator does a fantastic job of balancing the plot with humor, seriousness, and the competition. The judge makes a lot of corny baking puns, which is a fun recurring joke throughout the story. The illustrations are crisp and with just enough details to convey the emotions and visual cues that readers should be able to easily pick up.

Although there is not a lot of technique explanations in the text, this book does include detailed recipes sprinkled throughout the story. I did not have the chance to try making any of them, but the ingredients look to be standard baking fare and the directions easy enough to follow. Younger readers will need help from an experienced adult to help them understand some of the unexplained terms, but preteens and teens should be capable enough to follow along.

Batter Royale is recommended for any collection aimed at preteens or younger teens.  

Batter Royale
By Leisl Adams
Amulet Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781419750755

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Character Representation: Assumed Black, Canadian,

Cautionary Fables & Fairy Tales, vol. 5: The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories

The Woman in the Woods and other North American Stories marks the fifth volume in the series of cautionary fables and fairy tales. The eight tales in this volume are from Indigenous nations, told and illustrated by Indigenous artists, and highlighting tales from Odawa, Chickasaw, Métis/Cree, Métis, Ojibwe, Tania, Navajo, and S’Kallam societies. The editors asked each of the authors to ask for permission from the Elders and/or nations to retell and rework the stories for inclusion in this anthology as they recognized and respected the protocol inherent in the gathering of the stories from the people. Unfortunately, there are no source notes included in the collection, making it of less value to educators, librarians, and storytellers than I had hoped. True, the intended audience is middle school readers, not scholars, but the authenticity of each of the tales should be paramount for them as well. I do appreciate the fact that each of the tribal affiliations has been identified for the tales.

While the tales are rendered in black and white with various hues of grey, the cover itself jumps with colour. Ironically, the story alluded to on the cover is not included in the collection. Editor and cover artist Alina Pete remarked that she had hoped to include the creation story of Sky Woman and Turtle Island, but she could not find anyone that had permission to tell this story. Sky Woman fell to the water-covered world and fell on the back of Turtle. One by one, the animals dive into the water to try and find land until Muskrat is successful in bringing back soil. Sky woman spreads the soil on Turtle’s back to create the world as we know it. She shows Sky Woman dancing for joy and two constellations on the back cover featuring two of the characters from the tales within the covers.

Most of the illustrations in the book itself have simple backgrounds, focusing on the characters of each tale. The different styles of illustrations make each of the stories individual in a collection continuous from tale to tale without any commentary. Most of the illustrations are rendered realistically, although one or two stories have manga-like characteristics and vary between historical and contemporary settings. They also vary in length.

The anthology begins with the Odawa creation story, “As it was told to Me,” retold and illustrated by Elijah Forbes, which demonstrates that the world needs the balance of good and bad to exist. It is followed by a trickster rabbit story about the cost of vanity from the Chickasaw people. “Chokfi” is written by Jordaan Arledge and illustrated by Mekala Nava. The next two stories are located closer to this reviewer. “White Horse Plains,” from the Métis settlement St. Francois Xavier, relates the tale of the dangers of greed and conflict. It is written and illustrated by Rhael McGregor. The second Métis tale is possibly the most familiar character in the collection for me. Written by Maija Ambrose Plamondon and illustrated by Milo Applejohn, “The Rougarou” tells the story of a werewolf like monster and a young boy who befriends the Rougarou. I must admit that while I am familiar with many Rougarou tales, this is the first time I have encountered this one. Alice RL’s Ojibwe tale of “Agonjin in the Water” relates a tale of another story of friendship between a human and a mythical creature: the mythical, Mishipeshu the Great Water Guardian of the lakes and rivers.

The Taino story that follows gave its title to the anthology. It is written and illustrated by Mercedes Acosta and also focuses on the relationship between a woman and a spirit of a young girl who sees the mysterious “Woman in the Woods.” The penultimate tale, “Into the Darkness,” is a Navaho shapeshifter tale about a character so frightful that no one dares to speak its name. It is written by Izzy Roberts and illustrated by Aubrie Warner. The final tale, written by Jeffrey Veregge and illustrated by Alina Pete, is a romantic tale from the S’Kallam people. The Moon in “By the Light of the Moon” falls in love with Octopus Woman, the Queen of the Salish Sea in Puget Sound. The bright light of the Moon makes it possible for the Moon to watch her dance and to send her kisses. The power of the kisses has a surprising repercussion.

The stories are followed by two pages of concise biographies of the creators including their tribal affiliations and, in most cases, their sexual orientations.

Recommended for middle school and public library collections. Because the book is part of the cautionary fables and fairy tales series, most of the stories have strong lessons imparted in the story line, but they are not dogmatic and do allow the power of the storytelling to shine through. I just wish there were adequate source notes—did I say that already?

Cautionary Fables & Fairy Tales, vol. 5: The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories
Edited by Kate Ashwin, Kel McDonald, Alina Pete
Iron Circus, 2022
ISBN: 9781945820977

Publisher Age Rating: 10-12
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation:  Cree, Metis, Navajo, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans, Two Spirit
Character Representation: Cree, First Nations or Indigenous, Metis, Navajo