Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton is a master of liminal spaces. Her drawings are accomplished and often beautiful, but her work is distinguished above all by the quality of attention she gives to the areas between the panels of her comics. These narrow white bands are known as channels, and their clever placement is what makes one image alone seem to suggest the next. Beaton’s arrangement of space, the cartoonist’s equivalent of time, is exceptionally clever; she seems to know exactly what to show and what to leave out, when to stretch a scene to absurdity and excruciating length and when to compress a joke into a single frame. She honored her wit with exquisite wit in her webcomic “Hark! A Vagrant,” a perpetually delicious treasure trove of goofy humor, often about historical darkness, that ran from 2007 to 2018. The cartoons for “Hark!” — funny, feminist, lovers of scholarly antics — they married a deep knowledge of the visual arts with a captivating lightness of touch. win in riffed in 18th century french paintings; scattered anachronisms with joyous abandon; other drew attention to people, often women, unfairly downplayed in historical narratives. Even in her most elaborate sequences, she managed to give the deceptive impression that she had stumbled upon precisely the right line to communicate a haughty gaze or an embarrassed slouch. Among a certain kind of quiet person who valued a good joke about the Brontë, she became a minor celebrity.
“Ducks: two years in the oil sands”, is Beaton’s first independent book for adults. (She also wrote and drew two picture books for children.) The book recounts the two years he spent working in three different mines in the Athabasca oil sands of northeastern Alberta, another liminal space. The camps where the oil workers live are cut off from the outside world; its inhabitants are a shadow population, at home neither in the barracks where they sleep nor among the families they have left behind. Like everyone else in the oil fields, Katie (not Kate yet) is there out of necessity: she has to pay off her student loans. In form, the book sits on the border between memoir and reportage: “Ducks” is anchored in Katie’s time in the mines, but seeks to portray her experiences as typical of a much larger swath of workers who are drawn to oil sands at the cost of their health, their dignity and, sometimes, their lives. The Katie of “Ducks” is the younger version of the author, but she is also the reader’s guide through the complexities of an all-too-normal life.
“Ducks” is made with the same formal tools that Beaton used to build “Hark!” but those tools have had surprisingly different uses. Gone are the tributes to the French painters of the 18th century; if there is a predominant visual influence in “Ducks”, it is the work of the proletarian Ashington Group, who painted the coal mines and barracks where they worked and lived. Each of the book’s dozens of characters is drawn as a distinct and simple caricature, and Beaton loves the bickering and quirky mannerisms of the many kinds of people drawn to the money available in Alberta from all corners of the English-speaking world. . (Older Newfoundlanders call her “my duckling.”) As if to underscore the book’s distance from his former light-hearted work, Beaton has filled several of the gaps between chapters and scenes with astonishing, giant drawings of mining equipment and aerial views of the mines themselves. ; the images aren’t exactly beautiful, but they are excellent and suggest the scale and seriousness of Beaton’s ambition.
In the book’s opening pages, Katie reads about her previous experience landing a job as an assistant at a “tool cradle,” distributing and maintaining less than $2,500 worth of hardware to mine workers. The work is hard—twelve-hour shifts, six days on, six days off—and the machinery itself is dangerous. The oil sands are in a hellish region, with mountains of literal brimstone other poison lakes. Workers in their trucks, accidentally run over by co-workers driving trucks the size of small houses. Alcoholism and substance abuse are rampant; the company tests marijuana, so the miners simply use harder drugs. There isn’t much status to fight for in the mines, and perhaps that’s why so many people seem so eager for it. Katie is obviously out of place. She is new and young and she doesn’t know what she is doing. And she is a woman and almost all the workers in the mine are men. The other workers exercise her superior responsibilities on her: they have children to feed and wives to cheat on. Their student debt burden seems comparatively light to them. “People pay off loans every day, you know.” one tells him. “But they don’t,” Katie replies.
For Katie and the other women in the camps, sexual harassment is a constant threat. At one point, a strange man walks into her room while she is talking to her friends. “Oops! Wrong room.” Hey says. “That happens sometimes,” she explains. “When the door is open.” Her friends, all men, are shocked. “That doesn’t happen to me,” says one. Even among the people she knows and likes, Katie is isolated. Later in the book, her boss, Ryan, proclaims that the toolbox where she works is “only good for idiot sons and lame horses.” “And women!” Kate intervenes. “What?” Ryan replies, “don’t you want to be a jerk son?” “Ryan, please,” Katie replies, “I’d love to be someone’s idiot son.”
The largest entity in the oil sands is a tangle of contracts between state and private companies called Syncrude. Lake Mildred, where Katie works at the beginning of the book, is Syncrude’s base mine and is located near a town where many young families live. Later, Katie moves to another mine, Long Lake, which is still under construction. There are no families or communal ties. Everyone who lives in the camp yearns wildly and relentlessly for home. The aggressive attention Katie has endured in the mines goes from unpleasant to unbearable. “People do things here that they wouldn’t do at home,” she watches Leon, who works with her on the toolbox. “People are bored and crazy,” he replies dismissively. “But is that what they really are? Or are they who they are at home? she asks. Would her friends from her house turn chills or worse in the harsh conditions of the camps? Her uncles? Her father of hers? “I don’t like to think about it,” she says later in the book.
Beaton anticipates that the reader may also be reluctant to think about such things, so he approaches the subject from unexpected directions. “Ducks” is a work of more than four hundred pages, but Beaton compressed its narrative in a way that makes it as readable as “Hark!” you roll him. He’s also put his ability into bypass for new uses. Many of the important events in the book are cut out, in the unseen areas between pages and chapters, to be reviewed later. In the second half of the book, Beaton invites us to wonder how, like our heroine, we missed signs that are suddenly painfully clear on the pages we’ve just read.
As Katie takes on harder, riskier, higher-paying jobs, her life gets worse. Eventually, things get bad enough that she decides to leave the tar sands. She goes further west, to Victoria, and takes a low-paying administrative job at a museum, which she tries to supplement with various equally low-paying service jobs. In quieter moments, she begins to draw the comics that would become “Listen! A Vagrant,” but before long she is forced to confront exactly the forces she went to the tar sands to avoid: employers who fire her for any or no reason, ruthless debt collectors, and almost certain peonage The alternative is to go back to the mines to help the Shell corporation destroy local drinking water; the land, much of which belongs to First Nations; the wildlife; and the planet Ella returns to the mines.
“Ducks” takes its title from one of the few tar sands disasters to make international news: more than sixteen hundred ducks near the Syncrude mine he landed in a pond filled with toxic waste, known as “tailings,” and died. Images of the disaster, which occurs near the end of her time in the mines, haunt Katie, both because the fate of her ducks seems to be intertwined with her own and because by working in the mine she has contributed to her death. Mine workers, even in offices, suffer from strange and unexplained health problems; when environmentalists plug a pipe carrying tailings, the miners are the ones who have to unplug it. “Do I even want to know what kind of cancer we will have in twenty years?” asks Katie’s office mate.
In the epilogue to “Ducks”, Beaton mentions that his sister Becky, who got a job in the Long Lake oil sands and is a character in the book, was diagnosed with cancer that led to her death. win in I wrote about her sister’s illness New York The Cut from the magazine, emphasizing the failure of the medical establishment to take Becky’s symptoms seriously. “Ducks” is also a refutation of hierarchies of silence, an attempt to draw attention to forms of suffering that are easier to ignore. The painful and lonely experiences of people who do the real work of the oil industry are often hidden and hidden: they are inconvenient for employers, embarrassing for the workers themselves, and difficult for outsiders to understand. They are perhaps more readily available in metaphor. Beneath the dust jacket of his book, Beaton has hidden the silhouette of a duck, embossed on the cover with pretty foil that shimmers like an oil stain. ♦