Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands

by Kate Beaton

Hardcover, 2022


Drawn and Quarterly (2022), 436 pages


Biography & Autobiography. Nonfiction. Before there was Kate Beaton, New York Times bestselling cartoonist of Hark! A Vagrant, there was Katie Beaton of the Cape Breton Beaton, specifically Mabou, a tight-knit seaside community where the lobster is as abundant as beaches, fiddles, and Gaelic folk songs. With the singular goal of paying off her student loans, Katie heads out west to take advantage of Alberta's oil rush�??part of the long tradition of East Coasters who seek gainful employment elsewhere when they can't find it in the homeland they love so much. Katie encounters the harsh reality of life in the oil sands, where trauma is an everyday occurrence yet is never discussed. Beaton's natural cartooning prowess is on full display as she draws colossal machinery and mammoth vehicles set against a sublime Albertan backdrop of wildlife, northern lights, and boreal forest. Her first full length graphic narrative, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is an untold story of Canada: a country that prides itself on its egalitarian ethos and natural beauty while simultaneously exploiting both the riches of its land and the humanity of its peop… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member MickyFine
Kate Beaton's memoir in comic form recounts the two years she spent working in the oil sands of Fort MacMurray between 2005 and 2008. In a story familiar to many Canadians, she made the choice to come west from Atlantic Canada to cash in on the high-paying jobs in the oil patch in order to pay off
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her student loans. But life in the camps is difficult, particularly as a woman. As Kate encounters seemingly constant sexual harassment and the trials of the isolated life in the camp, she also grapples with the toll that the oil sands takes on the environment and the surrounding communities.

As a long time fan of Beaton's comics, I have been eagerly awaiting this memoir since it was announced. While the subject matter is often difficult and complex, Beaton's art is gorgeous with several two page spreads that brilliantly reflect the landscapes of Fort MacMurray camps. A brilliant piece of work that I highly recommend.

CW: sexual harassment, sexual assault
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LibraryThing member streamsong
Author Kate Beaton graduated from college with a degree in anthropology and a seemingly unscalable pile of student loans. As her hometown in Nova Scotia didn’t offer the type of jobs which would allow her to pay off this debt, she did what many young Canadians did and investigated Alberta’s
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high paying oil sands industry, eventually taking a warehouse type job.

What she found was a ratio of 50:1 men to women and not much to keep the isolated workforce entertained but drugs and alcohol. Everyone was transient – living in dorms or company provided housing while leaving their families back where they had originally lived.

She also found a testosterone-fueled culture in which male workers continually sexually harassed the few women – and in the worst cases even assaulted them. Throughout it all, though, she continued to wonder if the men she knew in Nova Scotia or the university would act any differently, given the harsh conditions they worked under.

Gradually, she saw other costs of working there. The title comes from a flock of ducks that died on landing on a toxic pond. The landscape was stripped, and left more barren than it had begun, leaving it unlivable for the native Cree and other First Nations inhabitants.

Eventually she left the oil sands for a job in the beautiful city of Victoria, British Columbia. There she started her cartooning and graphic novel writing career which led to this beautifully drawn graphic memoir, rendered completely in shades of gray.

Although her memoir is the Canada Reads selection for 2023, it speaks to many issues in my own home area in the US. From the toxic Berkeley Pit in Butte, MT where extreme measures must be taken to keep wildfowl from landing there, to the male dominated fracking extraction industry of eastern Montana and the Dakotas, to the concerns of a new discovery of rare minerals on National Forest Land in the Bitterroot Valley where I live, her questions echo – what are we willing to have destroyed in terms of both environment and people in order to enrich corporations and maintain our own lifestyles.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
I think Beaton accomplished what she set out to do. The craft was good. But lord a'mighty she is sanctimonious and also often boring. Adult life comes with indignities and one best be able to separate the everyday annoyances from the truly abusive,

Beaton barely touches on many matters that deserved
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much more time - rape, sexual harassment -- the destruction of land and the fact that the land being destroyed was stolen -- the ongoing threat to mental health from the isolation of company town setups -- the abundance of truly dangerous men roaming freely (they will hire a mass murderer if he has a CDL and a good coat.) She mentions in one frame that there is no training on issues of sexual harassment and assault but endless safety training and that frame is within the last few pages. That is an issue and she does not choose to pursue it. The endless safety meetings, that we hear a lot about, but the fact that there is no guidance on how to treat fellow workers and for that matter fellow humans is barely grazed over.

I lived in North Dakota at the very end of the oil rush there (The protests at Standing Rock were raging when I arrived) and talked to many people who had done their time in the Bakken, men and women, and there is a story to be told. Beaton has that story but focuses in hundreds and hundreds of frames on harmless or gross flirting of the 13 year old boy variety. Much of it appeared to be good natured teasing from men with 8th grade educations and families elsewhere and zero social skills. It is wrong and demeaning to women, but it is not a very important or compelling story. The story is that the company turned a blind eye, and that no one introduced training to help people do better. She gives about 3 pages to the impact of the oil fields on First Nations people, affords 3 or 4 frames to her rapes and perhaps another 1o throughout the book to the lasting impact of those assaults. It did not tell me the story I showed up to see. That might be my issue, but alas it is also my review.
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LibraryThing member BibliLakayAyizan
After university, Kate Beaton headed west, like many others, searching for a job opportunity. She heard about Alberta’s oil rush, and hoped to find something that will help her to pay off her student loans. Arriving in Fort McMurray, Beaton finds work in the lucrative camps owned and operated by
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the world’s largest oil companies. For two years, she worked in a place dominated by men.

Beaton’s graphic memoir is powerful, and so interesting. She depicts everything from the harsh reality of life in the oil sands where trauma is an everyday occurrence yet never discussed. For months, she lived in a small community where colossal machineries and machines were the only scenery. Her testimony as a woman worker in the Oil Sands is strong, deep and touching.

Kate Beaton was 22 years old when she took the decision to leave her family and cross Canada to find work. It is through the eyes of a young woman that the reader discovers that often unknown Canadian very isolated place, and the harsh work that are the Oil Sands. That Graphic Memoir is truly extraordinary and I really couldn’t put it down.
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LibraryThing member lycomayflower
CA: rape, sexual harassment, racism

Beaton's graphic memoir of the two years in her early twenties when she worked in the oil sands in Alberta to pay down her student loans. I learned so much about Canada from this book, most of it sort of eye-opening. (I think a lot of USians have this notion that
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Canada is the US with socialism and without all the ugly stuff that plagues us down here (racism, student debt, misogyny, etc), and even though I KNOW (and have become increasingly aware over the last few years) that that's at best reductionist and at worst flat-out false, seeing it illustrated (ha!) here was another piece in the puzzle of getting a better grip on the country we share such a massive border with. If you're familiar with Beaton's humorous comics, you'll recognize her art style here, but otherwise this memoir is very different from her previous work. It has its amusing moments, but mostly it's a bit heavy and somewhat melancholy. I found it went on just a touch long for my interest (and some of the background characters sort of blurred together), but your mileage may vary on that and I think it's well worth the read anyway.
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LibraryThing member JesseTheK
Beaton captures the beauty of the landscape, the boredom and danger of resource extraction, the grinding impact of sexual harassment and assault, the pain of forced emigration within Canada for settlers and natives.
LibraryThing member msf59
Before launching her career as a successful cartoonist and penning her popular Hark a Vagrant series, Kate Beaton left her hometown in Nova Scotia to work in the oil sands of Alberta, which was booming at the time. She was buried in student debt and this was one of the best opportunities available
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for her, despite the isolation and grueling conditions.
This graphic memoir details her two years spent there. It was not easy for Beaton or for the many thousands of other workers stationed there and being one of the few women, made it even more difficult. She was subjected to sexual harassment, in its many guises, along with the long, grinding hours. The book also looks at the environmental issues placed on the land, the wildlife and it’s indigenous people by these monster oil companies. The writing and artwork are excellent and I highly recommend it. Warning- issues of sexual assault.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
After graduating, Kate Beaton owes quite a bit on student loans and can't find a job in her native Cape Breton, an island off the east coast of Canada that is part of Nova Scotia. Following so many before her, she takes a job working in the oil industry, in an isolated place where the men often
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outnumber the women by fifty to one. It's not a good place for anyone, but it provides a way for people, often men without high school diplomas, a way to earn a good wage. While the job helps Beaton pay off her loans, the job and the environment grind her down.

This memoir, dealing with serious and sensitive issues is quite a departure from the author of the popular [Hark! A Vagrant] webcomics. But Beaton is a skilled storyteller and her account of those two years in Alberta is well-told and it will break your heart.
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LibraryThing member MaowangVater
Beaton’s graphic memoir of her years after college working away from her home in Nova Scotia is an honest first person account of working in the Alberta oil sands between 2005 and 2008 with a year in between working in a maritime museum in British Columbia. It was work in cold, isolated
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landscapes, filled with both natural beauty and enormous machinery, living in Spartan barracks where the ratio of men to women was 50 to 1. In her afterword the author states bluntly:

"This was also a time when discussion surrounding the mental health of workers—especially itinerant male workers in a hypermasculine environment like the oil sands work camps—barely existed. Camp life fosters a certain unique set of mental health challenges in an environment that is probably the least suited to contend with them. The boredom, isolation, loneliness, and depression add up for many—and for some, are too much to bear. Few resources existed on site, and in reality, they were nothing more than lip service. Instead, the industry prized itself on having millions of hours without lost time incidents while hiding away the human wreckage. Anecdotally, in researching this book, I rarely found this topic researched or reported on, and for an industry as large and far reaching as the oil sands, I found that very alarming."

"I am wary of the sensationalism of my narrative because it contains sexual violence. The sad fact is, however, that sexual assault of every kind is far too common everywhere to be sensational. This doesn’t mean I am not deeply and negatively affected by it. I will always be affected by it. But I guarantee you that neither of the men who raped me consider what they did to be rape, if they consider it at all."

"… work camps are a uniquely capsuled-off society, a liminal space, and analogue for so many other male-dominated spaces. Gendered violence does happen when men outnumber women by as much as fifty to one, as they can in camps or worksites. Of course it does. Of course this happens when men are in isolation for long stretches of time, away from their families and relationships and communities, and completely resocialized in a camp and work environment like that of the oil sands. It does not matter how many decent people are there. I knew plenty of those.
This is all particularly and profoundly true for Indigenous women and girls in Canada, who are far more likely to the victims of sexual violence around places like remote work camps."

The other environmental hazards of the work camps she chronicles are the high use of alcohol and drugs by workers, motor vehicle accidents on icy roads, and the occasional suicide. For the natural environment it’s the ducks of the title dying trapped in the toxic sludge in the wastewater ponds left over after hydraulic fracking.

Beaton’s cartoon portraits of herself and her coworkers are stylized, but her one and two page spreads of landscapes and skyscapes of natural beauty like the northern lights and a rainbow over a work camp and the gritty detail of a working oil field are meticulously drawn in fine detail.
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LibraryThing member quondame
It's possible an intended message was that student debt is a modern mechanism for supplying serf labor, but that's one I got, aside from the "men are pigs" - well it's actually "pretty much all the men who interact with us are pigs, the good ones just leave us alone" which is very very sad. A basic
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but effective drawing style and just the right words get across the barren life of what are work camps, if semi-voluntary ones. I doubt anything other than living separated from family and community life for months on end could really make understanding the impact real. I was asked if I enjoyed the book and could only answer that I don't think it was meant to be enjoyed. Appreciated yes. That.
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LibraryThing member Lindsay_W
When we talk about the high price of oil, we should also be talking about the cost to the humanity of the people who work in these industries. Toxic masculinity can contribute to hazardous working conditions for women like the author who was on the receiving end of a lot of it during her time in
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the oil fields near Fort McMurray. Ducks also gives us an insider view of the industry and the experiences of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians who commute to work in Alberta. Ducks is a CBC Canada Reads 2023 Selection.
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LibraryThing member AmyMacEvilly
Deals with difficult subjects: leaving home because of economic necessity, taking on difficult work because of economic necessity, the opportunities for those with limited literacy, the extractive Western relationship to the land, and the creation and perpetuation of a culture of sexual assault. On
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this last item, Beaton clearly shows that it affects not just the women, but the men who are our fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. Throughout the narrative, Beaton struggles for her humanity and dignity, and also for that of her co-workers.

I read this soon after reading Ulli Lust's _This is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life_, and her experience in especially Sicily echoed Beaton's, and is another example of the damage that the culture of sexual assault does to all genders. I also read an article in the January 2023 issue of Harper's about the rush to put solar farms on desert lands, and again, there were resonances between that and the background of the oil extraction in Beaton's book.
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LibraryThing member LibrarianRyan
First off, I’ve never heard of or thought about oil sands in Alberta, Canada. I thought this book would be about foreign oil, but that’s more of my world history teaching than anything. This book is very real. It would be considered a memoir. Which means it has its ups and downs. Overall, the
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story is very interesting. I learned things I didn’t know both about Canada, it’s providences, their school debt situation, etc. At the same time there were certain things you just knew were going to happen. Those certain things are trigger warning worthy the but the author has asked people not to give those trigger warning so I’ll just say some people could be triggered. Overall, this book was very slow: the art is great, it flows well, it is just the topic. It’s an interesting study that I am glad I have read. Am I likely to recommend it probably not because it wouldn’t be to the taste of most people that I know. However, I did learn something and I did think it was worth my time.
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LibraryThing member fionaanne
I much prefer Beaton's humourous stuff and I ended up skipping a chunk because our trusty narrator was subjected to harassment that I didn't want to experience along with her. Interesting to learn about the extraction operations but not a fun read if you're female cause of the second-hand rage.
LibraryThing member LynnB
At 21 years of age, Kate Beaton graduated from University in Nova Scotia with a B.A., no viable employment opportunities near home and crushing student debt. To pay off that debt, she goes to work in the Alberta oil sands, "where the money is". This graphic memoir tells the story of the two years
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she spent working there.

Her work environment was overwhelmingly male (a ratio of 50 to 1), and she was subject to sexual harassment and violence. She was also subject to loneliness and isolation. She portrays her day-to-day work life and the way she felt. It's a gloomy book, really capturing both the atmosphere of the job and of her inner life. Despite the gloominess, her belief in herself and her determination shine through. I'm so glad she succeeded.
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LibraryThing member et.carole
This was really good. I can see why people have loved this. It’s a thoughtful and many-dimensioned look at the ethics of working in the oil sands, of working as a woman in a male-dominated place, of what isolation for work can do to people—any people—who are put in that situation. It was very
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moving, and Beaton’s ability to create a lot of emotion with her clear, efficient style was truly impressive. I can understand why the wait list for this was so long at the library.
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LibraryThing member reader1009
graphic memoir - Nova Scotian cartoonist spends two years working for oil companies in Alberta, Canada (at great expense to her sense of humanity, and irreparable damage to the nearby First Nations settlement and environment) in order to pay off her student loan debt. CW/TW: sexist language, rape,
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drug use, addiction, depression, fatal car accidents, fatal work accidents.

a complex portrait of a place that seems to bring out the worst in people, but Katie's friends point out that women get raped in college all the time, too. So, yeah. It's a fast read, and will definitely leave you with some feelings to sift through.
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LibraryThing member villemezbrown
Katie Beaton gives an insider's view of the toxic masculinity pervading male-dominated, blue-collar workplaces in the Canadian Oil Sands in 2005-2008. Of course, such sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape is not limited by time and space
LibraryThing member spinsterrevival
This was fascinating and heartbreaking and disturbing (I was not expecting sexual assault, although I have no idea why I was surprised considering), and it was an amazing read. I love how there’s so much packed into just a couple of years; this is a micro memoir that packs a huge punch, and I
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learned so much here.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
Everyone from Barack Obama to the judges on Canada Reads 2023 have lauded this book. Sometimes that is a curse but in this case I have to say I agree with all of them.

Kate Beaton finished a BA and then was left with a massive student debt and no job. So she left her home in Mabou, Cape Breton and
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went to work in the Oil Sands in northern Alberta. No problem getting a job there even without any experience. She was hired on to work in the tool crib at Syncrude and she also had a part time job working in a restaurant. During her time in the Oil Sands she worked for a number of companies in a number of positions. At one point she took a job in one of the temporary work camps where there were 50 men for every woman. There was no separate housing for women so they were in the same accommodations as all the men. She had experienced some misogyny from men at her previous work placements but in the camp it was blatant and abusive. She complained to management but was just told that was the way things were. It was probably preordained that Kate would be sexually assaulted. Because of her previous experience with complaining about harassment she did not report these incidents but she was profoundly affected by them. She even left for a while to take a job in her field at the Maritime Musem in Victoria but she could barely make ends meet there and certainly couldn't pay off her student loans. So she went back to the Oil Sands and toughed it out until she was debt-free and had some savings. During her time there she developed her talent as a cartoonist and now she is working at that and living on Cape Breton Island.

I guess this is a hopeful story in a way but it seems to me that Kate Beaton called on incredible inner strength to make it through these years. This book should be a wake-up call for our entire country as to what the extraction of petroleum products destroys both in terms of the environment and the people. Time to find a better way!
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LibraryThing member ladycato
I've been a Kate Beaton fan for years because of her humor and wit, but I've wanted to read her graphic novel memoir since it came outlast year. When I saw the local library in my new town had it on the shelf, I had to check it out as soon as possible. The hefty tome is over 400 pages, but I read
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it in a single day.

Ducks is personal, intimate, and also a necessary work on Canadian culture and history. Like many in rural Canada, Beaton had no choice but to leave because her Cape Breton to find a job after graduating college. Big cities were not her destination, though, but the oil fields of northern Alberta. She encounters an environment of colorful characters, and persistent harassment. Women are outnumbered 50 to 1, and what Beaton endures is horrific. Do be aware that rape happens, and it is handled without any graphic depictions. This isn't a book about those incidents and her recovery, though--it's a much bigger book than that. Her artwork is simple but eloquent, her depictions of people often whimsical. She shows the stark cold of Alberta and the oceanic and spiritual push-pull of her eastern home with deep emotion.

Simply put, this book is extraordinary.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
In Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, Kate Beaton details her experiences working in the Alberta oil sands from 2005-2008 after graduating from college with a degree in history and anthropology. Due to the economic circumstances of her hometown in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, many people move
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elsewhere for work. Faced with looming student loan debt, she chooses to do the same, working in a high-paying – if dehumanizing – industry in order to pay off her loans as quickly as possible. What Beaton found in the oil sands was a microcosm of isolated people working dangerous jobs that destroyed the local environment and ruined Native lands. The predominantly male workers staved off the boredom, isolation, and depression through alcohol and drugs, creating a hypermasculine culture that dehumanized any women who happened to work there. While Beaton’s only explicit discussion of money comes from her efforts to work out how much she can earn to pay off her student debt, the entire world she describes is the result of capitalism destroying people. Large, faceless companies care more about lost-time incidents than human fatalities; the men may get rich, but the work exposes them to who knows how many carcinogens while taking a toll on their mental health; the men in turn create a culture that dehumanizes women, regularly objectifying them and making it impossible for them to speak up without fear of reprisal. Beaton tells her story in a harrowing, heartbreaking way, devoid of sensationalism and full of a silent pain. The omnipresent greys in her art reflect the washed-out nature of humanity in service to big oil.
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LibraryThing member janismack
This was a young adult book about a Cape Breton 21 year old girl who travels to Alberta to wok at the Oil sans near Fort MacMurray. I am not surprised about all that happened to her and doubt this kind of behavior will ever change. Quick read illustrated.
LibraryThing member bumblybee
Ducks is a graphic memoir about the author's experience working in the oil sands in Alberta. I'll admit I really wasn't familiar with the setting at all, so it was really interesting to get a glimpse into mid-2000s Canada. Beaton is unflinching in showing her experience as a woman in a very male
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field, and I could tell as I was reading that this will be a story that stays with me for a long time. As far as execution goes, this is the perfect graphic memoir. I'm grateful that Beaton is willing to share this part of herself, and I'm glad I was able to read it.

Thank you to Drawn & Quarterly and NetGalley for providing a copy for review.
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LibraryThing member Familiar_Diversions
This volume starts when Kate Beaton is 21. She's just graduated from university and has student loans to pay off. She's from Cape Breton, an area of Canada without a lot in the way of jobs. Faced with student loans and a family that isn't well off enough to give her a safety net, Beaton opts to do
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what so many around her have done and get a job in the oil sands. She figures she'll work there for a few years, pay off her student loans, and then get a (less well paying) job she genuinely loves using her degree.

One of the first places she ends up at is Syncrude. She works as a tool crib attendant, learning how to do her job, watching the first of many safety videos, and getting to know the people. As is the case at every location she ends up at, she's one of a very small number of women working there, and painfully aware that all the men are looking at her. It's an odd, uncomfortable, and artificial environment. She knows that the loneliness and isolation of the oil sands contributes to it - any one of the people she grew up around could become just like one of the guys at these sites. It's not a great situation, and she knows it, but there isn't much she can do about it. If she complains, she's either ignored or viewed as troublemaker who can't work with the team.

As the volume progresses, she meets lots of different people - some decent, some not so much - and gets to know the complexities of the oil sands. Mental health issues and drugs are a huge issue among the workers but never talked about, unless a workplace injury makes it impossible to ignore, and even then the root of the problem is never addressed. The same goes for gendered violence. While the workers are doing what they can to get by, the oil companies they work for are damaging the environment, which in turn affects the indigenous people who live in the area.

Although she doesn't say so directly, in her afterword Beaton mentions her sister's cancer diagnosis and eventual death, and I couldn't help but wonder if her time at the oil sands is what eventually led to her cancer. There are multiple mentions, throughout the volume, of things like the cough and weird rash that a lot of the workers get, even those who primarily work in offices.

This took a while to grow on me, but by the end it was tough reading. The rapes were chilling, despite nothing much being shown on-page, just Beaton mentally "going away" for a bit. I wanted her to keep her museum job for longer (she looked so happy). I had a little blip of happiness when I recognized that period of time she started her webcomic, but mixed in with everything else, it just became sadness.


A 3-page afterword by the author.

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)
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Original publication date





1770462899 / 9781770462892
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