K.ate Beaton’s new graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sandsis, I think, going to come as something of a surprise to her fans, for it could hardly be more different in tone from her popular larky strip Hark! And Vagrant, in which she gently sends up historical figures such as Napoleon and Ada Lovelace. Yes, it’s funny at moments; Beaton’s low-key wryness is present and correct, and her drawings of people are as charming and as expressive as ever. But its mood overall is deeply melancholic. Her story, which runs to more than 400 pages, encompasses not only such thorny matters as social class and environmental destruction; it may be the best book I have ever read about sexual harassment.
How do men behave when women are (mostly) not around? Alas, the answer is: not terribly well. Ducks is an account of the two years Beaton spent (beginning in 2005) working in the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, a far-off planet to which she traveled from her beloved home in Nova Scotia for the sole purpose of paying off her student loans (in these booming wildernesses, the money is too good for a humanities student from a small rural community to refuse). Naturally, the wrench involved in this move is painful; like just about everyone in the places she is employed – in a town called Fort McMurray and in various camps in outlying areas – she comes from far away and must contend with aching homesickness. But for Beaton there’s something else: her loneliness is exacerbated to an immeasurable degree by the fact that the women there are outnumbered by men by 50 to one.
It’s as if she’s an exhibit in a museum: in one camp, a long queue of men snakes around the building where she’s working, those in it all hoping to catch sight of the new female on the block (and thence to grade her on her looks). In the beginning, she’s only startled by the way these guys talk about women in her presence; by their terrible assumptions and casual persistence. Such things are, to a degree, entirely new to her (she is only 21, after all). But this soon shades, first, into horror and furious indignation, and then into a terrible weariness.
Beaton sets such ugliness – and it will become very ugly indeed – against both the small acts of kindness by a few renegade decent blokes and the beauty of the Alberta landscapes; there are some gorgeous drawings in Ducks of the snow and the starry sky at night. But the human terrain, in her hands, is never only black and white. She has such compassion for these deracinated, isolated men, all of them so worn down physically by their work (the air is black with sooty deposits; workers joke darkly about their inevitable deaths from cancer). And it’s this that gives her story not only its richness and depth, but also its astonishing grace. Life is complex, she tell us, quietly, and we are all in it together; each one of us is only trying to survive. What a difficult, gorgeous and abidingly humane book. It really does deserve to win all the prizes.