Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly Publications, 2022

In the world of superhero comics this would be an origin story: how our heroine became the cartoonist she is today. The narrative begins in 2005. Beaton was 21 years old, and comes from Cape Breton, a beautiful island off the east coast of Canada, in the province of Nova Scotia. The region has been impoverished for generations, and Beaton had student loans to pay off. The place to go for a good job and the better life was the oil sands of northern Alberta: it was booming there, so off she went. She had no idea of the massive culture shock she was about to experience.

She did not have a job lined up, so she worked as a waitress before landing her first oil job as a tool crib attendant. In the fields she quickly realized that the workforce was overwhelmingly male, and she attracted an unusual amount of attention just by being a woman (especially since she always thought of her sister Becky as "the pretty one"). Not only that, but it turns out that most of the men who were hitting on her at work had a wife and children at home. When Becky joins her in Alberta, she finally tells her that she was raped: later another friend confides that she has been as well while in college. It is an ugly part of the culture that is rarely discussed. The sisters wonder if their own father could resist it if he were there.

One good thing did come from isolation. Katie (as she was known when she was in the oil sands) began publishing cartoons online, starting what was to become her career. The narrative is presented in a straightforward cartoon style, but the book is peppered with stunning drawings of animals, scenery, heavy machinery, and the Northern Lights (in her hands they make a powerful impression even in black and white). Beaton's Afterward talks about the social issues her story brought up, paying special attention to the indigenous issues that are only mentioned briefly in the book. The book's title comes from a 2008 incident when a couple of hundred migrating ducks landed in Canadian oil sludge and died. It was not a huge ecological disaster, but the ducks were photogenic, and it became front page news. The ducks serve as a visible symbol of the many problems that were ignored.


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