CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian's Reviews > Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands

Ducks by Kate Beaton
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I finished reading this graphic memoir by Cape Breton cartoonist Kate Beaton (of Hark! A Vagrant! fame) over a week ago. It's been weighing heavily on my mind since then: not only the book itself, but an extratextual note about the memoir. And despite having sat on it and thought for so long, I'm still not sure how to respond. 

The memoir itself is phenomenal. Beaton's art is precise and emotionally engaging, her choices of description and dialogue poignant and thought-provoking. As the subtitle says, it's a memoir about her two years working in the Northern Alberta oil sands (including work camps) in her early twenties after graduating university with massive student loans. For a book that consists mostly of conversations between co-workers, it's incredibly engaging and page-turning. 

It is very firmly rooted in the time and place when Beaton was doing this work. The only revelations we encounter are ones Beaton herself had near the end of her time in the oil sands, and that includes about issues of misogyny, class, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that pertain directly to her, let alone things like climate change, environmentalism, colonialism, and Indigenous rights.

I can't imagine an older Beaton inserting her evolved thoughts from 2022 or contemporary information about Indigneous and/or environmental activism. It would be very clunky and would read as preachy, or as Beaton trying to redeem her past self and make herself look 'good' and 'politically correct.' The format she's chosen allows the reader to go on the same journey she does, which I think is a much more effective way to approach such a charged and multi-faceted topic. I mention this because I've seen numerous reviews insisting she should have covered political issues related to the oil sands explicitly, which I think narratively, artistically, and politically would have been a mistake.

The way she explores the interactions of class, gender, and regional origin in this book is so nuanced. Beaton works with a lot of fellow Atlantic Canadians, particularly others from Cape Breton and from Newfoundland. They are all fellow working class people forced to leave their homes because of lack of economic opportunities, often caused by the breakdowns of other environmentally exploitative industries like mining or fishing, particularly in marine resources controlled by the federal government, not local or provincial governments. 

The men she works with – and they are of course overwhelmingly men, outnumbering women sometimes 50 to 1 – are a constant source of sexual harrassment, and on two occasions, sexual assault. But at the same time, Beaton experiences a kinship and establishes friendships with many men, some of whom act downright fatherly with her and who remind her of her cousins and uncles back home. As she tells us at one point after an unnerving conversation with a (woman) Toronto reporter wanting salacious details about her experiences working as a woman in the oil sands: "they're more mine than she is." 

Her insistence on presenting her experiences as complicated and sometimes contradictory is one of the book's most compelling features. The people doing this environmentally devastating work aren't evil villains; they too are being exploited by the oil companies and have few other options for supporting themselves as blue collar workers. The men Beaton works with are suffering from isolation, terrible mental health conditions, the absolute jokes of workplace safety policies, and subsequent drug and alcohol (ab)use. Some of them are also perpetrators of rape, assault, and harassment. She is haunted by the uncertainty of how men she knows and loves would act trapped in such a toxic environment for so long. All these things are true at the same time. 

So that's the book itself. It's truly an impressive achievement and I am so glad I read it. Back to the extratextual note. The review copy I received of this book came with a short typed note from the author. It fell out of the book when I picked it up to start reading. The note informed me that there were scenes of rape in the book and encouraged me, as a reviewer, to not warn readers about the fact that there was sexual assault in the book. Beaton writes that she understands why this is common  now, but wants readers to experience the build up to the first assault which she calls a kind of narrative climax and how being in an environment like that grinds you down. Ironically, I hadn't read the book yet when I read this note, so it did exactly what Beaton was trying to prevent. 

Honestly, knowing the topic of this book I wasn't surprised to learn it covered sexual assault and I bet other readers would make the same guess. But when I write reviews I do always mention if books have scenes of sexual assault and I don't consider it a 'spoiler,' I consider it care for other potential readers, particularly survivors of sexual assault who can be triggered or retraumatized. It's common practice now! It helps readers make an informed decision about whether or not to read the book, where and when to read it, and prepare themselves for troubling content. I and many other reviewers have picked up this practice as a result of the activism of survivors of sexual assault. My impulse is of course to honour the wishes of a survivor – Beaton – but not at the cost of other survivors. She doesn't get to decide for them. She also doesn't get to decide how professionals write about her book, particularly how other women write about women being raped. 

So this tiny little note has really soured my experience with the book. As you can see, I decided not to adhere to Beaton's request and omit mentions of sexual assault in my review. I couldn't in good conscience do it. But now I'm not only deeply troubled by the content of the book itself, but by the unexpected conundrum this author note presented. I would love to hear thoughts from other feminist readers and reviewers, particularly if you also received the note. 
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Reading Progress

March 8, 2022 – Shelved as: to-read
March 8, 2022 – Shelved
March 8, 2022 – Shelved as: class
March 8, 2022 – Shelved as: canadian
March 8, 2022 – Shelved as: prairies
March 8, 2022 – Shelved as: nonfiction
March 8, 2022 – Shelved as: memoir-bio
March 8, 2022 – Shelved as: graphic-comics
January 12, 2023 – Started Reading
January 12, 2023 – Shelved as: east-coast
January 12, 2023 – Shelved as: abuse-assault
January 30, 2023 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by lyraand (new)

lyraand Thank you for this really thoughtful and nuanced discussion of the book and note! I haven’t read the book, though I’ve been meaning to (and still want to), but I’m glad to have this additional information about it. And I agree that, while authors can choose not to provide warnings themselves, they shouldn’t get to decide whether other people include warnings in their reviews.

message 2: by Em (new) - rated it 5 stars

Em How strange. I didn't get a note in my copy (I actually got two, one preordered from my local and one from Kate's book tour). I don't remember reading reviews beforehand, but I had a feeling that there would be sexual assault in the book just from the context surrounding it. It was still haunting to read, even knowing it was coming, and I don't like the idea of asking people not to warn for that in reviews (not to mention, would that include not mentioning the assault in reviews at all? It's an important part of the book and naturally one might want to talk about it)

message 3: by Kaleb (new)

Kaleb I'm looking forward to reading this book more after your review. If you're interested in an indigenous take on the oil sands, I recommend Zoe Todd's article "Fossil fuels and fossil kin" which takes a complex view of what it might mean to consider our relations to what's become oil and weaponized (her other articles are really awesome too. researchgate (dot) net/publication/365249418_Fossil_Fuels_and_Fossil_Kin_An_Environmental_Kin_Study_of_Weaponised_Fossil_Kin_and_Alberta's_So-Called_Energy_Resources_Heritage

message 4: by Della B (new)

Della B Beautiful review. I received this book for Christmas and am now anxious to start reading it.

CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian Thanks all! The note, I think, wa included just for people who were given review copies by the publisher or author, probably just for people who might have reviewed the book before it was out. So if you bought one via a store or something, it wouldn't have come with it.

Melissa Thank you so much for your review and information provided

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