Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Ducks by Kate Beaton

In April of 2008, about 1600 ducks died in a tailings pond near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. It's a region full of intense oil-extraction activities, called the oil sands, full of heavy industrial companies who create large, self-contained camps - many are residential; the staff lives there - to get at the oil buried deep underground. Those camps contain dangerous expensive machinery, poisonous solvents and raw materials, and large transient populations of mostly men getting paid a lot to put up with tough working conditions in a cold, barren climate. They have long, tedious safety lectures that are mostly followed, most of the time, at least when they talk about actions that an individual worker should take to protect himself.

The industry doesn't want dead ducks. Even aside from the publicity hit. The head of the responsible company, Syncrude Chief Executive Officer Tom Katinas, said, when the initial estimate of deaths was tripled, "We felt very badly about 500 in the first place. I don't believe that as badly as we felt, you could feel three times worse than we did. But we do feel badly."

Ducks is not about ducks. It's about women. One woman in particular: author Kate Beaton, who was twenty-one and just out of university when she took the first of a series of jobs in the Fort McMurray area, where she spent two of the next three years, commuting to and living in those camps, among those men, alongside those machines and chemicals. 

Beaton never makes the metaphor of the title explicit. The ducks aren't even mentioned until nearly the end of the book; it happened late in her time in Fort McMurray. But those ducks died because their living wasn't important to the men who ran those mining operations. And the women in those mining operations were equally unimportant, and the things that happened to them along the way were just what happens.

But those men do feel badly.

Beaton frames her story within the tensions of home and money: she comes from the town of Mabou, on Cape Breton island in Nova Scotia, a region of Canada without a lot of industry or growth or opportunity. It's a place that people both love and leave - they want to stay and build lives where they grew up, but the jobs just aren't there. So they go, to wherever the jobs are at that time: the US, Toronto, wherever. In the mid-Aughts, the booming place was the oil sands of Alberta.

She'd just graduated with what she calls "an arts degree" - not something that prepares anyone for A Specific Job, and jobs are rare in Cape Breton to begin with. Her student loans were large; she wanted to do something to pay them off fairly quickly and then figure out her real life. The oil sands had a lot of jobs; she could move out there, work briefly as a waitress, and work her way into higher-paying work for oil companies in various camps, moving around for better hours or pay. She did. This is how it went.

During those years out West - 2005 to 2008 - Beaton first started creating comics seriously, and posting them online. Ducks could have been the story of how being far away from her home sparked that creative impulse - her career started with those quick, devastatingly intelligent and funny comics, and that would have been a positive, uplifting story.

That's not the story of Ducks. That's not the story of any book that would be called Ducks. This is instead a story of survival, of hostile environments. It's not bleak - even when women are outnumbered fifty to one, they can make friends and support each other. And most of those fifty men are decent: only a few are not.

But it only takes a few.

It only takes a line, of what seems to be all of the men working on-site, coming to see the new "tool crib girl" when Beaton takes her first job. It only takes a few, leering inappropriately, "testing" the lock on her door in a dorm, telling stories about how all of the few women "get around." It only takes one to give her too much to drink and not hear the word no.

Or maybe it only takes all of them, that see all that happening and let it. It only takes a society steeped in misogyny: men who shrug and ask if she reported it, women who run through events over and over in their heads, trying to figure out what they did wrong, how they could have stopped it.

That's the world of the oil sands. That's where Beaton spent two years. And Ducks is full of moments from those years - like any life, most of the moments she remembers are positive. But there's that undercurrent, all the time, all those assumptions and prejudices of a society of often minimally educated men who live in the society of men and see women as others - and know that they outnumber those women fifty to one.

Ducks is a long book, with the strengths of quiet observation and patience and honesty. It's the story of Kate Beaton in this time and place, a lot of the many things that happened to her over those years, as understood and presented by an older Beaton, once she was finally ready to write about that time.

All of it is lovely and true. Most of it is fun and amusing. Moments are as heartbreaking as any book has ever been, made so much worse because we know they really happened and because we know that Beaton had to be the one to tell us them.

Since about 2007, we knew Beaton could be quick and funny and feminist, could twist established ideas like a pretzel and make them new and exciting in just a few panels. But now we see those same skills, and especially that deep feminism, turned to a vastly larger and more serious canvas. Ducks is a magnificent achievement that I wish didn't exist: I wish Beaton hadn't lived through these things this way to make this book. But she did, and she did turn it into art, which is the best possible outcome starting from hundreds of dead ducks and dozens of women damaged and acres of pristine land spoiled.

But all those things still happened. And Beaton's point is that they keep happening, to other ducks. Until and unless we stop them.

No comments:

Post a Comment