“It felt like I had a second to decide, and an eternity to live with it.”
Before she ever appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for her comics, Kate Beaton was Katie: A university graduate drowning in debt like a lot of the young people in Canada’s Cape Breton. She knows nowhere else will ever feel like home the way Mabou does. She knows she’ll return.
But Kate also knows that if she ever wants a future without crippling debt, she has to leave because everyone in Cape Breton knows there is no work there.
Which brings Kate, like so many others, to Fort McMurray–a camp in the oil sands. Unlike most of the others who migrate there for work Kate is a woman–one of the only ones among thousands of men. Moving from camp to camp, she chases higher pay and better jobs starting in a machine shed before moving to more and more isolated camps chasing an office job and–once her student loans are paid–a chance to leave.
Life in the oil sands is boring and tedious. It’s lonely and isolating for everyone. More so for the women. It’s dangerous for everyone but in different ways for the women. While the factories track days without lost time and efficiency, the human wreckage accumulates everywhere in Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands (2022) by Kate Beaton.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is a powerful graphic memoir. The story explores Beaton’s own experiences working at different camps and sites in the Canadian oil sands first as a tool crib attendant and later in an office job. In environments where men outnumber women 50 to 1 Beaton navigates sexism, misogyny, and harassment while also confronting the uncomfortable reality that the men behind all of these behaviors could just as easily be her own friends and relatives from back home in Cape Breton where many other Canadians have to negotiate their pride of place with the lack of jobs and career prospects.
Through the stories of colleagues and friends she meets along the way, the toll of working in the camps is clearly broadcast long before Beaton gets there. That said, readers should be aware that much of the story deals with Beaton processing the trauma surrounding her own sexual assault during her time at the oil sands.
Beaton’s black and white illustrations work well here with fine detail used to depict her two year journey to pay off her student loans. Full-page spreads convey the scale of the machinery and scope of the camps while smaller panels lend a claustrophobic feel to much of the story to underscore Kate’s isolation and turmoil.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is a masterful and intentional graphic memoir; often a difficult read but well worth it.
Possible Pairings: Our Little Secret by Emily Carrington, Radium Girls by Cy, Factory Summer by Guy Delisle, 100 Days in the Uranium City by Ariane Denomme, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden, Desperate Pleasures by MS Harkness, The Pervert by Michelle Perez, The High Desert by James Spooner