Celebrated cartoonist Kate Beaton vividly presents the untold story of Canada.
- Warning – From this point on, this review discusses spoilers from the book. How you can classify someone’s life events as ‘spoilers’, I don’t rightly know.
- Second Warning – These spoilers can also be triggers, specifically regarding sexual assault. So please be advised.
But Kate Beaton has been a parasocial part of my life for quite a while. She’s best known as the writer and artist behind the webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, which stopped publishing in 2018, but was responsible for gifting us with Shetland Pony Adventures and the line “What if your wife orbits my dick”. It was a stellar cavalcade of history, literature, pop-culture and absurdism that was always a delight to read.
Ducks is different. While it shares the simple, charming style of Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant art. Its subject matter is altogether more serious, and more personal. It follows Kate’s life post-college as she makes the difficult decision to move to the oil sands of Northern Alberta, taking up a post in a tool crib for an industrial Oil Field in order to pay down her student loans.
It is a whirlwind of a memoir, taking place across several different Oil Fields that Kate works at over two years, with lots of characters – mostly men (more on that in a minute) – weaving in and out of the narrative quite quickly. Even with helpful character guides placed strategically throughout the book, I found it hard to keep track of who was who. Ultimately, I felt this was less of a bug and more of a feature, because it gives the book an ethereal memory-like quality. How well can you remember the exact, entire cast of characters from your life nearly 20 years ago?
Prior to reading this book, I had assumed it was going to be more focused on what Kate witnessed in terms of the horrifying environmental impacts of the Oil Sands – some of you may be more familiar with the term ‘Tar Sands’. Beaton does touch on this further towards the end of the book, but not as much as I had expected. Instead, Ducks focuses on going to a more personal, and frankly, upsetting place.
We see Kate as one of few lone women working in an isolated, hypermasculine focused environment and all the casual misogyny and resulting oppression that comes with it. Kate is constantly the butt of jokes and her needs and voice are often ignored, if not silenced. We follow her and see how these interactions affect her and how she clings to and takes solace in little moments of true kindness that she finds (both from women and some men). You really can see how being thrust into such a place during your post-college formative years can wear on a soul.
I say again, I don’t know Kate Beaton. Kate Beaton doesn’t know me. Kate Beaton and I have never met.
But when Kate is escorted out of a party by a co-worker and back to his dorm. I couldn’t help but feel the quiet dread, followed by sadness, followed by anger. I caught myself whispering, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Please no.”
The full extent of the scene is not shown, of course. But since the entire night was rendered in an art style I’d come to adore, I felt like I was learning this about a friend, making it all the more personal.
But those events not withstanding, Ducks still holds an enormous amount of sympathy for the workers in the Oil Sands. Beaton somehow manages to push past the misogyny and the sexual assault to muster the understanding that the men – many with an eighth grade education – are being exploited for their labor, given as most don’t have a choice to work elsewhere. That, coupled, with their own insertion in a male-dominated environment produces toxic results for them, as well. The narrative is far, far more compassionate than I expected, or than I even thought was deserved, and really speaks to the amount of genuine thought and heart Beaton has given to her sometimes harrowing experiences. It’s really quite humbling and makes you take stock of everything around you.
Kate Beaton doesn’t know me. I don’t know Kate Beaton, but I feel like I know her a little bit more now, and I want to sincerely thank her for sharing her story with me.
Please read this book.