Ducks by Kate Beaton review – powerful big oil memoir

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Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton made her sanction with Hark! A Vagrant, a bid of joyously satirical strips crammed with irreverent feminist skits connected everything from Jane Austen to Caesar’s pyjamas and ghost-eating ponies. They ended up filling 2 award-winning books, but they began arsenic webcomics, and Ducks is an relationship of wherever Beaton started publishing them from: the lipid sands of north-eastern Alberta, wherever mines clump atop the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen successful the satellite and you tin “see the frozen crushed ripple erstwhile the haulers spell by”.

Ducks, her archetypal full-length graphic novel, feels a agelong mode from the quirky, quickfire drama of Hark! A Vagrant. Instead, this observant, aggravated and compelling memoir tells of a vast, callous manufacture and its effect connected the radical who support it running.

It opens successful 2005, arsenic a recently graduated Beaton returns to her puerility location connected Cape Breton Island, a wooded backwater successful Nova Scotia. It’s a beauteous place, but its system has been level for decades, and Beaton has pupil loans to wage off. Her uncle tips her disconnected astir a occupation handing retired instrumentality and checking inventory successful an lipid sands “tool crib”, and truthful the young Katie heads west, to a succession of mines that dependable similar Martian vacation resorts: Syncrude Aurora, Long Lake and Albian Sands.

Ducks by Kate Beaton
Beaton’s Alberta is simply a satellite of frozen onshore and monolithic trucks. Illustration: Kate Beaton

Ducks builds its satellite with unhurried, immersive naturalism. Katie archetypal rolls in, hunched and groggy connected a pre-dawn bus, to spot a daze of towers, flames and fumes blaring retired of the darkness. Gargantuan vehicles teardrop astatine the earth, leaving watery pits and rubble successful their wake. But Katie volition walk astir of her clip indoors, moving agelong hours successful the organization corridors and prefab cabins that squat connected this scarred wilderness.

It’s a soul-sapping environment, staffed mostly by out-of-state workers who, similar the land, are a assets to beryllium exploited. “Cheap labour,” explains Beaton, “where booming manufacture demanded it.” She takes clip to amusement the everyday: the grumbling, the pen-pushing, unusual quirks, embarrassment, camaraderie, boredom and discomfort. Colleagues, by turns cheerful, brusque, resigned, crass, saccharine oregon despairing, easiness successful and retired of absorption arsenic Katie changes jobs, moves sites and struggles to acceptable in.

These scenes hum with life, and galore would marque a good evocation of immoderate workplace. But information and acheronian loom. One idiosyncratic dies successful a road crash, different has a bosom onslaught successful a crane, a 3rd is crushed by a lorry. Sores look connected Katie’s backmost from the foul air, and antheral eyes are astir ever upon her. Necks crook arsenic she walks past, men thin connected the instrumentality crib antagonistic to ogle her and strangers jiggle her locked doorway astatine night. She and her fewer pistillate colleagues larn to unrecorded with nicknames (“perky”, “ducky”, “little miss”, “cougar”), but intimidation is followed, with terrifying banality, by violence.

These are not one-off incidents but portion of a wider civilization of commodification and entitlement. The workers, isolated, institutionalised and surviving successful a spot that is profoundly impermanent – 1 time the lipid volition tally retired – person small crushed to respect their environment. But the occupation is not confined to the sands; Ducks is besides a critique of a wider satellite that’s anxious for inexpensive vigor and careless of the mode it is made. When a writer phones astir occupation successful the camps, Katie smells hypocrisy. “They don’t deliberation that the loneliness and the homesickness and boredom and deficiency of women astir would impact their member oregon dada oregon hubby the aforesaid way,” she tells a colleague. During a interruption from camp, she works successful Victoria, British Columbia’s “Garden City”, wherever graceful, leafy boulevards disguise homelessness, and insufficiently cheerful employees are fired connected the spot. There is poison present too, adjacent if it gleams similar gold.

What volition beryllium left, erstwhile the lipid has gone? A First Nations assemblage has its concerns astir toxins successful the h2o and aerial massaged, past ignored. As 1 of Katie’s bosses remarks with fatalistic humour: “Who knew ripping up frozen swamps would person immoderate repercussions.” The ducks of the rubric are a flock hundreds strong, killed by concern sludge. Yet beneath the particulate overgarment of Ducks, which shows Beaton perched similar an interloper from Lilliput connected an immense truck, is an iridescent duck, glittering connected the yellowish cover.

That hopeful emblem points to a blessed ending of sorts. Beaton paid disconnected her indebtedness and returned to her beloved Cape Breton. Her awesome vocation volition beryllium propelled inactive further by this engrossing and almighty memoir. Another writer mightiness person made their originative travel a bigger portion of this story, but Beaton uses her sizeable skills to absorption connected the wider picture: large oil, and the assemblage that makes a surviving from it. Her exposé is damning, but afloat of humanity.