DUCKS is the memoir of Cape Breton cartoonist Kate Beaton that focuses on her time working in Alberta’s oil sands. Landing in 2005, with a brief one year reprieve in British Columbia, Kate spent two years working and living in both Fort McMurray proper and at several of the work camps with the goal of paying down her student loans. She would return home to Nova Scotia in 2008.
As soon as I heard Kate Beaton was working on a memoir detailing her time in Northern Alberta, I was counting down the days until I could read it. While I do not know Kate personally, we’re the same age, we are both from Cape Breton and we were both in Fort McMurray around the same time (I arrived in 2007 and left in 2009).
That being said, that’s about where our similarities end. Not only was I lucky enough to have a Monday to Friday desk job in town during my time there, but I also had a home to go home to every evening. Kate worked long and difficult hours at a variety of job sites while also living on site in camp, so it was difficult to have that work/life separation that I think we all need.
In a town where females are outnumbered fifty-to-one, you can imagine how challenging it was for Kate and the women she worked alongside. Men are bored, isolated and away from their families and there is often a camaraderie among those who engage in “locker-room talk” by objectifying women and engaging in sexual assault. Now obviously, not all men are going to do this, but that’s not the point, it’s the ones that act this way toward women who are powerless to stop it and it’s an overwhelming number of them. It’s ingrained in the culture of the job and empty-handed gestures by companies do little to curb it.
It is so surreal to see so much of the town I lived in drawn with such accuracy. Fort McMurray is a place I haven’t been to since I left thirteen years ago, but Kate’s art put me right back on Franklin Avenue. It’s a time in my life that feels both far away yet recent at the same time. While Beaton is known for her trademark simplicity in her characters, her work on landscapes and the complicated machinery that goes hand-in-hand with the tough work that men and women do every day is exceptional.
The true heartache of this book lies in Kate’s struggles to keep her head above water amid financial woes, trauma and a never-ending battle with her conscience. Although she experienced conflict with several who drifted in and out of her life, she spoke highly of many of the relationships she forged with those who held her best interests in mind and helped her along the way.
I will say that this book made me homesick in a way I didn’t expect. Beaton is authentic with her Maritimer slang throughout the book’s dialog in such a way that I can hear the voices so clearly in my head. Having not been back to Cape Breton since 2018, it was nice to have a little bit of home brought to me.
DUCKS will easily find its way onto my shortlist for best of 2022. I do not think it’s possible for me to recommend this enough.