Ducks by Kate Beaton review – powerful big oil memoir

The cartoonist mines her time working in Canada’s oil fields to paint an angry and humane picture of the destructiveness of humankind

Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton made her name with Hark! A Vagrant, a series of joyously satirical strips crammed with irreverent feminist skits on everything from Jane Austen to Caesar’s pyjamas and ghost-eating ponies. They ended up filling two award-winning books, but they began as webcomics, and Ducks is an account of where Beaton started publishing them from: the oil sands of north-eastern Alberta, where mines cluster atop the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world and you can “see the frozen ground ripple when the haulers go by”.

Ducks, her first full-length graphic novel, feels a long way from the quirky, quickfire comedy of Hark! A Vagrant. Instead, this observant, angry and compelling memoir tells of a vast, callous industry and its effect on the people who keep it running.

It opens in 2005, as a newly graduated Beaton returns to her childhood home on Cape Breton Island, a wooded backwater in Nova Scotia. It’s a beautiful place, but its economy has been flat for decades, and Beaton has student loans to pay off. Her uncle tips her off about a job handing out equipment and checking inventory in an oil sands “tool crib”, and so the young Katie heads west, to a succession of mines that sound like Martian holiday resorts: Syncrude Aurora, Long Lake and Albian Sands.

Ducks by Kate Beaton
Beaton’s Alberta is a world of frozen land and massive trucks. Illustration: Kate Beaton

Ducks builds its world with unhurried, immersive naturalism. Katie first rolls in, hunched and groggy on a pre-dawn bus, to see a shock of towers, flames and fumes blaring out of the darkness. Gargantuan vehicles tear at the earth, leaving watery pits and rubble in their wake. But Katie will spend most of her time indoors, working long hours in the institutional corridors and prefab cabins that squat on this scarred wilderness.

It’s a soul-sapping environment, staffed mostly by out-of-state workers who, like the land, are a resource to be exploited. “Cheap labour,” explains Beaton, “where booming industry demanded it.” She takes time to show the everyday: the grumbling, the pen-pushing, strange quirks, embarrassment, camaraderie, boredom and discomfort. Colleagues, by turns cheerful, brusque, resigned, crass, sweet or despairing, ease in and out of focus as Katie changes jobs, moves sites and struggles to fit in.

These scenes hum with life, and many would make a fine evocation of any workplace. But danger and darkness loom. One worker dies in a highway crash, another has a heart attack in a crane, a third is crushed by a lorry. Sores appear on Katie’s back from the foul air, and male eyes are almost always upon her. Necks bend as she walks past, men lean on the tool crib counter to ogle her and strangers jiggle her locked door at night. She and her few female colleagues learn to live with nicknames (“perky”, “ducky”, “little miss”, “cougar”), but intimidation is followed, with terrifying banality, by violence.

These are not one-off incidents but part of a wider culture of commodification and entitlement. The workers, isolated, institutionalised and living in a place that is profoundly temporary – one day the oil will run out – have little reason to respect their environment. But the problem is not confined to the sands; Ducks is also a critique of a wider world that’s eager for cheap energy and careless of the way it is made. When a journalist phones about trouble in the camps, Katie smells hypocrisy. “They don’t think that the loneliness and the homesickness and boredom and lack of women around would affect their brother or dad or husband the same way,” she tells a colleague. During a break from camp, she works in Victoria, British Columbia’s “Garden City”, where graceful, leafy boulevards mask homelessness, and insufficiently cheerful employees are fired on the spot. There is poison here too, even if it gleams like gold.

What will be left, once the oil has gone? A First Nations community has its concerns about toxins in the water and air massaged, then ignored. As one of Katie’s bosses remarks with fatalistic humour: “Who knew ripping up frozen swamps would have any repercussions.” The ducks of the title are a flock hundreds strong, killed by industrial sludge. Yet beneath the dust jacket of Ducks, which shows Beaton perched like an interloper from Lilliput on an immense truck, is an iridescent duck, glittering on the yellow cover.

That hopeful emblem points to a happy ending of sorts. Beaton paid off her loan and returned to her beloved Cape Breton. Her impressive career will be propelled still further by this engrossing and powerful memoir. Another author might have made their creative journey a bigger part of this story, but Beaton uses her considerable skills to focus on the wider picture: big oil, and the community that makes a living from it. Her exposé is damning, but full of humanity.

• Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton is published by Jonathan Cape (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.


James Smart

The GuardianTramp

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