How Kate Beaton paid off her student loans
Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton is a master of liminal spaces. Her drawings are accomplished and often beautiful, but her work stands out above all for the quality of the attention she pays to the spaces between the boxes of her comics. These narrow white bands are known as gutters, and their skillful placement is what makes one isolated image seem to suggest the next. Beaton’s arrangement of space – the cartoonist’s equivalent of timing – is exceptionally deft; she seems to know exactly what to show and what to leave out, when to draw a scene of absurdly excruciating length, and when to compress a joke into a single frame. She honed her wits with exquisite sharpness in her web comic “Hark! A Vagrant,” a perpetually delightful treasure trove of wacky humor, often about historical obscura, which ran from 2007 to 2018. “Hark! engaging lightness of touch. Beaton riffed on 18th-century French paintings; scattered anachronisms with joyous abandon; and drew attention to people, often women, unjustly understated in the historical narrative. Even in his the more elaborate sequences, she managed to give the misleading impression that she had stumbled across the right line to communicate a haughty look or an embarrassed slump.Among a certain type of quiet person who appreciated a good joke about the Brontes , she became a minor celebrity.
“Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands” is Beaton’s first standalone book for adults. (She has also written and drawn two picture books for children.) The book recounts the two years she spent working at three different mines in the Athabasca oil sands in northeastern Alberta. , another liminal space. The camps where the oil workers live are cut off from the outside world; their inhabitants are a shadow population, at home neither in the barracks where they sleep nor among the families they have left behind. Like everyone else in the oilfields, Katie – not yet Kate – is there out of necessity – she has to pay off her student loans. In form, the book straddles the line between memoir and reportage: ‘Ducks’ is rooted in Katie’s time in the mines, but it seeks to show her experiences as typical of a much wider group of workers who are drawn to the oil sands at the cost of their health, dignity and sometimes their lives. Katie from “Ducks” is the author’s youngest, but she’s also the reader’s guide to the intricacies of an all-too-habitual life.
“Ducks” is created with the same formal tools that Beaton used to create “Hark! but these tools have been used for surprisingly different purposes. No more homages to 18th century French painters; if there is a predominant visual influence in ‘Ducks’ it is the work of the proletarian group Ashington, who painted the collieries and barracks where they worked and lived. Each of the dozens of characters in the book is portrayed as a simple, distinct caricature, and Beaton enjoys the arguments and idioms unique to the many types of people drawn to cash in Alberta from all corners of the English-speaking world. (Older Newfoundlanders call him “my duck.”) As if to underscore the distance between the book and his earlier light work, Beaton filled many of the gaps between chapters and scenes with gigantic, staggering drawings of mining equipment and aerial views of the mines themselves. ; the images aren’t pretty, exactly, but they’re excellent, and they suggest the scale and seriousness of Beaton’s ambition.
In the opening pages of the book, Katie lies about her previous experience getting a job as a “tool nursery” attendant, distributing and maintaining equipment worth less than two thousand five hundred dollars for workers in the mine. The work is hard – 12-hour shifts, six days on, six days off – and the machinery itself is dangerous. The tar sands are a hellish region, with literal sulfur mountains and lakes of poison. Workers are dying in their trucks, accidentally knocked over by colleagues driving transporters the size of small houses. Alcoholism and drug addiction are rampant; the company tests marijuana, so minors just use harder drugs. There isn’t a lot of status to fight in the mines, and maybe that’s why so many people seem so eager to have it. Katie is clearly out of place. She’s new and young and doesn’t know what she’s doing. And she’s a woman and almost all the mine workers are men. The other workers exert their superior responsibilities upon her – they have children to feed and wives to cheat. His student debt seems relatively light to them. “People are paying off loans every day, you know.” they tell him. “But, they don’t,” Katie replies.
For Katie, and for the other women in the camps, sexual harassment is a constant threat. At one point, a strange man enters her room as she is talking to friends. “Oops! Wrong room.” he says. “It happens sometimes,” she explains. “When the door is unlocked.” His friends, all men, are shocked. “That doesn’t happen to me,” said one. Even among the people she knows and loves, Katie is isolated. Near the end of the book, her boss, Ryan, proclaims that the tool nursery where she works is “only good for silly sons and lame horses”. “And women!” Katie intervenes. “What,” Ryan replies, “don’t you want to be a dumb son?” “Ryan, please,” Katie replies, “I wish I was someone’s dumb son.”
The biggest entity in the oil sands is a slew of contracts between public and private companies called Syncrude. Mildred Lake, where Katie works at the start of the book, is Syncrude’s base mine and is near a town where many young families live. Later, Katie is transferred to another mine, Long Lake, which is still under construction. There are no family or community ties. Everyone living in the camp has a wild and unrelenting homesickness. The aggressive attention Katie endured in the mines goes from unpleasant to unbearable. “People do things here that they wouldn’t do at home,” she observes to Leon, who works with her in the toolbox. “People are bored and crazy,” he replies dismissively. “But is that really what they are?” Or are they what they are at home? ” she asks. Would his friends from home turn into creeps or worse in the harsh conditions of the camps? Did his uncles? His father? “I don’t like to think about it,” she says later in the book.
Beaton anticipates that the reader, too, may be reluctant to think of such things, and so she approaches her subject in unexpected directions. “Ducks” is over four hundred pages, but Beaton has compressed his narrative to make it as readable as a “Hark!” undress. She also put her talent for omission to new uses. Many important events in the book are cropped, in the invisible areas between pages and chapters, to be revisited later. In the second half of the book, Beaton invites us to ask ourselves how, like our heroine, we have missed signs that are suddenly, painfully clear on pages we have just read.
As Katie takes on tougher, riskier, and better paying jobs, her life gets worse. Eventually, things go bad enough that she decides to leave the oil sands. She goes even further west, to Victoria, and takes a low-paying office job at a museum, which she tries to supplement with various equally low-paying service jobs. In quieter times, she begins to draw the comics that will become “Hark!” A wanderer,” but before long, she’s forced to confront exactly the forces she went to the tar sands to avoid: employers who fire her for whatever or no reason, ruthless debt collectors and an almost certain peonage. The alternative is to return to the mines to help Shell destroy the local drinking water; the land, much of which is owned by First Nations; the wild life; and the planet. She goes back to the mines.
“Ducks” takes its title from one of the few oil sands disasters to make international news: More than sixteen hundred ducks near the Syncrude mine landed in a pond filled with toxic waste, called “tailings,” and are dead. Images of the disaster, which comes towards the end of her time in the mines, haunt Katie, both because the fate of the ducks seems tied to hers and because by working in the mine she contributed to their deaths . Mine workers, even in offices, suffer from bizarre and unexplained health problems; When environmentalists clog a pipe carrying tailings, it’s the miners who have to unclog it. “Do I even want to know what kind of cancer we will have in twenty years? asks Katie’s colleague.
In the afterword to “Ducks”, Beaton mentions that his sister Becky, who worked in the Long Lake tar sands and is a character in the book, was diagnosed with cancer which resulted in her death. Beaton wrote about his sister’s illness for New York The Cut from the magazine, highlighting the medical establishment’s failure to take Becky’s symptoms seriously. “Ducks,” too, is a refutation of the hierarchies of silence, an attempt to draw attention to forms of suffering that are easier to ignore. The punitive and solitary experiences of the people who do the real work of the oil industry are often held back and covered up – they are embarrassing for employers, shameful for the workers themselves and difficult for outsiders to grasp. They are perhaps more readily available in metaphor. Beneath the jacket of her book, Beaton hid the silhouette of a duck, embossed into the cover with a pretty sheet of rainbow wrapping paper that shimmers like an oil slick. ♦
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