by Kate BeatonPublished 2022 436 pages
Phew. That's devastating.
Ducks is the account of Kate Beaton's (of Hark! A Vagrant fame) two years working on the Alberta oil sands. There's money to be made there, for all manner of folk from parts of Canada where the jobs have dried up—and Beaton has student loans to pay. On the oil sands, however, she finds a space right on the edge of society, rife with toxic masculinity, mental health hazards, and reckless neglect on the part of the companies that run the camps.
Beaton highlights the drama of daily tedium with the same lighthearted jibing that made Hark! A Vagrant so charming to begin with, but I struggle to call this a fun read. The camps don't just extract oil from the earth—although they do that, without regard for the people already living there or the environmental damage they cause—but they extract humanity from the people working there. Cut off from the rest of society, the few women working there are harassed (and worse) by men unbound by consequence. Management is concerned foremost with profits, and people are just resources to be moved and reallocated when underperforming. If one of the workers veers into a ditch in whiteout conditions, or is run over by a haul truck, or kills themselves—life goes on without them.
Against all odds, Beaton continues to approach life with grace and good cheer. There are moments of light amid the tired grind—moments where men speak up for their vanished friends, moments of closeness between Kate and her friends, small moments of kindness that don't redeem the awful experience, but seem at least to make each day marginally more bearable. Beaton's careful not to paint the world as a grim, doomed place, but a roiling sea of power, attention, and care that we're each trying to navigate as best we can.