“The sweat of my brow keeps on feeding the engine”
Kate Beaton might be known for her extremely funny historical comics, but now she’s given us Ducks, an account of her years spent working in northern Alberta in the oil sands industry, which she did to pay off her student loans in the mid-2000s. Drawn & Quarterly has published this, and I’m going to write about it!
Beaton was in Alberta between 2005 and 2008, and at the beginning of the book, she is 21 and needs to pay off her student loans. Her parents seem vaguely disappointed by her choice to study art, but such is life. She lives on Cape Breton Island, which is part of Nova Scotia, but as she points out early in the book, there’s not a lot of work there, even though everyone who lives there loves it. The idea of family and leaving a place you love is a big theme in the book, as Beaton has to go west and eventually, some of her family joins her, but she’s always looking to get back (considering she now lives on Cape Breton, she did a good job). It’s interesting to consider the lure of the West, which is still so strong in the States and in Canada even though we think of it as a 19th-century thing. Beaton certainly doesn’t want to go to Alberta, but there’s good money to be made in the oil sands, and so she manages to get a job there (while waitressing on the side for a while), and that’s where her … adventures? begin.
It’s a hard life in Alberta, especially for a woman (men outnumber women there 50-to-1, we’re told). What’s great about the way Beaton tells the story is that she doesn’t sensationalize it – it’s a personal story, as she points out in the afterword, so she doesn’t want people to think hers is the only experience that matters. This is important because she is raped twice in the course of the story, and neither time does she really resist and neither time would most people consider it rape (coercion is probably a better word, although it’s still rape, especially the second time, when Beaton tries to stop it), and she knows that that doesn’t happen to every woman who works there. She also makes the point that for most of her time there, she was completely ignorant of the First Nation communities in the area, so that doesn’t come into the story very much (Beaton does work it in a little, but not too much). Obviously, whenever you’re dealing with someone’s livelihood, they’re not going to take kindly to you painting that livelihood with a broad brush, and she points out that the people of Fort McMurray, Alberta (the largest town in the oil sands area) don’t enjoy hearing an outsider criticizing the industry that has brought them so much wealth. Beaton can only talk about what happened to her, though.
That’s why the book is so powerful, of course. A singular experience can become universal, even if we recognize that not all women who worked in the oil sands industry were raped and not all the men who worked there are rapists. Beaton works hard, tends to keep her head down, and becomes a jack-of-all-trades, mainly because she just wants to pay off her loans and get out of there, a fact not lost on the lifers who think she’s a tourist (as Jarvis Cocker noted, everybody hates a tourist), and because she doesn’t want to make waves, we get to see the awful treatment she’s subjected to without much comment. The men all hit on her, even the married ones (their wives are far away, and they’re usually working for months at a time). Both of the rapes happen because Beaton is a bit drunk and in an unfamiliar environment, and she blames herself for them, which is not uncommon, unfortunately. Even before that, though, there’s a lot of tension when she’s alone with men, because we feel like bad things could happen at any time and no one would care (and, given some of the reactions to the rapes, that’s absolutely true). The men also don’t respect her intelligence, which annoys her. Obviously, they’re not going to respect her physical abilities, because they’re big strong men and she is a small weak woman, but she’s not doing a job that requires a ton of physical work, she’s doing something that requires intelligence, and she knows what she’s doing, but they still don’t respect her. As she shows early on, she’s willing to eat shit to keep her job, so they’re condescending to her and ignore her wishes, but as the book nears its end, she’s able to find a bit of her voice, and while it doesn’t make much of a difference in the industry, we get the sense it makes a bit difference for Beaton herself. Beaton does a very good job with the large cast of characters – she moves to different sites and even spends a year in Victoria, British Columbia, working at a museum (where, sadly, the men aren’t that much different from those in the oil fields), but she manages to make them all unique and interesting. The women she meets generally try to help her, although not all of them are sympathetic to her position, and the men are interesting because even the ones who are nice can’t seem to quite break out of the stereotypes they’ve been slotted into. It’s a very good sociological treatise in many ways, because Beaton doesn’t comment on how these men act, just shows them acting in their ways, and it’s left to the reader to interpret her ideas. Obviously, I might be off-base. But that’s my prerogative as a reader!
Beaton’s art is never a reason to get her books, but it’s fine in this. She does a good job showing the places she works and how bleak they are, but a lot of the book is just people talking to each other, so we don’t get too big a sense of the surroundings in which the action takes place. There are a few panels of the aurora borealis, and Beaton does a very nice job getting across the expanse and majesty of the lights, making the humans digging into the ground smaller by comparison. She does do a good job with the characters’ expressions, especially her own – she can’t rant too much, so Beaton draws herself with the occasional cocked eyebrow or scornful stare so that her distaste for some of what’s going on around her comes through even if she doesn’t say it openly. While Beaton’s figure work isn’t great, the way she uses eyebrows and mouths to express emotions is very good, and it makes the art work well, even if it’s not as good as the words you’re reading.
Ducks is a terrific comic, and it shows that Beaton is as comfortable handling more serious topics as she is with making people laugh. She does a very good job bringing up hard topics about exploitation – of women, of natives, of land, of the poor – and power imbalances without being polemical, and the book is more thoughtful for it. Give it a look!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆