Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton

I’ve been following Kate Beaton for years, so when she first mentioned this book, I was ready. Of course, that was ages ago, and I’ve been essentially counting down the days until I could get to read it. My personal hype train really needed no encouragement on Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, and I knew once I opened it, I would devour the whole thing. I was right, and Beaton’s graphic memoir is one of the loveliest things I’ve read and looked at this year. If you’re familiar with Beaton’s work from her Hark! A Vagrant series, you will note a lot of the hallmarks of Beaton’s style of cartoon, but also a deeper, richer, and darker style here, displaying the seriousness of Beaton’s memoir.

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is set in mid to late 2002, the period after Beaton had graduated from university with an arts degree and a pile of student debt. At 21, Katie, as she is known in her daily life, decides the only way for her to have a chance at life is to go to where the money is: off to Alberta, to live and work in the oil camps, till she pays off her student loans. What follows are her experiences as one of a handful of women in the camps she worked at, first in the tool crib, and later, after a period spent working in a museum n Victoria, she returns to the oil sands, this time to work in the office. Beaton’s story of this time in her life is clear and honest, and incredibly fair. While she details her feelings of loneliness and isolation, as well as the grim realities of working in an all-male environment, Beaton is also incredibly generous and fair to the people who populate her memories.

Drawn in a palette of greys, Ducks is earnest and sad. Beaton transports us to the oil sands with her, setting us in her isolation. Like Beaton notes at the beginning of the memoir, in Cape Breton, in the Maritimes as a whole, there are two things which are true: you have a deep love for your home, and you will almost certainly have to leave to have a future. Being from this region, I felt that in my bones. I’ve been fortunate to manage to stay, but it was always in the back of my mind that staying in the region was not a given. For Beaton, she knew that in order to have a chance to come home again, she would have to wipe her student loan slate clean.

Beaton explores the idea of the camps, balancing her need to survive with the reality she is part of a strange a toxic system, both for the people who work in it and the land it tears up. Katie grapples with these places, these people, and their strange separation from the world: what she sees and experiences in the oil camps is real, but also so apart from her life in the rest of the world. Reading Ducks was revelatory, because while I know so many people who went west to work there, I really had no strong grasp of what those camps could be like.

I laughed, I cried, I studied Beaton’s skyview drawings of each of the places she was in during the years Ducks is set. Ducks is more than 400 pages but it never once feels that weight. Once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down. What a beautiful, harrowing, thoughtful memoir.

About the Author

Kate Beaton was born and raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada. After graduating from Mount Allison University with a degree in anthropology, she moved to Alberta in search of work that would allow her to pay down her student loans. During the years she spent out West, Beaton began creating webcomics under the name Hark! A Vagrant!, quickly drawing a substantial following around the world.
Beaton lives in Cape Breton with her family.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Drawn & Quarterly (Sept. 13 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 448 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1770462899
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1770462892

Alison Manley bounced around the Maritimes before landing in Miramichi, NB, where she works as a hospital librarian. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. When she's not reading biomedical research for her work, she likes reading poetry, contemporary and historical fiction, and personal essays. Noted for a love of bright colours (and lipstick), you can find her wandering the banks of the Miramichi River with a book and a paintbrush.