Kate Beaton's graphic memoir 'Ducks' is a dark look at the Canadian oil sands Kate Beaton, known for her popular webcomic Hark a Vagrant, is out now with her new graphic memoir Ducks — which dives into the day-to-day life of working in the Canadian oil sands.

Kate Beaton's new graphic memoir is about the dark type of job you take for money

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There are jobs you take because you find them fulfilling, or they're a stepping stone to a career you imagine for yourself. And then there are jobs you take for the money. The new graphic memoir "Ducks" is about the latter. It's by cartoonist Kate Beaton, the author behind the popular webcomic comic "Hark! A Vagrant." But while that comic was known for its funny and exuberant takes on historical figures with ducks, Beaton uses her talents to examine her own life, working in the oil sands of Alberta, Canada. Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Real quick, some basic geography to get us situated. Kate Beaton's book "Ducks" mostly takes place in Fort McMurray, an oil boomtown in Alberta, Canada, a little over 900 miles due north of Bozeman, Mont. But the book starts way over on the east coast in Cape Breton.

KATE BEATON: It's an island in Nova Scotia. It's where I'm from.

LIMBONG: Kate Beaton.

BEATON: It's very beautiful. But for the longest time, it had been economically disadvantaged. And this had been the case all my life.

LIMBONG: It had previously been home to different industries - steel, coal, fishing. And then it wasn't anymore. So the island started sending its people out to wherever a hot industry was popping off - to Detroit for cars, to New England for logging, to Fort McMurray for oil. I asked Beaton to read the opening pages of "Ducks," where a cartoon version of herself narrates how this exportation of labor ingrained itself into the culture of Cape Breton, where you love your home, but you know you have to leave to work, to live.

BEATON: This push and pull defines us. It's all over our music, our literature, our art and our understanding of our place in the world. To have not is a mental state as well as an economic one.

LIMBONG: As cartoon Beaton says that line in the book, she walks past a group of kids singing these lines from a Cape Breton folk song.


KENZIE MACNEIL: (Singing) And the foreign-owned companies forced us to fight for our survival and for our rights.

BEATON: (Singing) We are an island, a rock in a stream. We are a people as proud as there has been.

We learn that song - yeah, I remember singing it in grade five. It's called "The Island" by Kenzie MacNeil.

LIMBONG: It's a very proud song, but proud in a complicated way - proud the way Springsteen song about leaving New Jersey is proud or when Lil Wayne raps about New Orleans.

BEATON: And, you know, you're singing that, and you're very small, or you're listening to it, and you're very small. And you know that's going to be you. You're going to carry this sense of melancholy. And whatever job that you get is good, is fortunate. And however they treat you is good because the place where you're from is not bad, but...

LIMBONG: Not enough.

BEATON: Not enough, not enough.

LIMBONG: In the book, her parents try to convince her to become a teacher or a nurse. But the money out west is good enough that if she puts in the time, she can pay off her student debts and pursue a career in the arts. So she heads to Fort McMurray, an oil boomtown populated mostly by men, many of whom were similarly away from their homes, away from their families.

BEATON: And it comes with all of the, like, easy traps that people fall into in a boomtown - easy access to drugs, loneliness, being cut off from the rest of society, far away from people, and people losing themselves to those things.

LIMBONG: The book follows Beaton as she deals with the loneliness while also having to put up with constant varying degrees of sexism and misogyny, from crass comments to worse.

BEATON: I didn't have a good time there. I didn't like it. I lived in the camps, and that was hard. That was very hard. I was a young woman and by myself. I was harassed all the time.

LIMBONG: Men spread rumors about hooking up with her. They talk about her body at work openly. They walk into her bedroom, quote-unquote, "by accident." But the book shows small moments of tenderness, too - people looking out for her in their own ways, people looking to just get by.

Chris Turner is author of the book "The Patch: The People, Pipelines And Politics Of The Oil Sands" about Fort McMurray. He and his eldest kid are actually longtime fans of "Hark! A Vagrant" and its sly sense of humor. And he said "Ducks" far exceeded his expectations in how it captured the totality of the town.

CHRIS TURNER: I mean, the scope of it, her ability to tell an extremely personal story really, really well and really carefully and movingly, but then, also, to create kind of a very fair portrait of this boomtown at a particular time all around it. It's a pretty amazing act of both memoir and almost journalism.

LIMBONG: Throughout "Ducks," Beaton draws these huge landscapes - a big, beautiful sky at the top, juxtaposed with seemingly equally huge and just as imposing machinery on the ground - a stark reminder of what the oil industry is doing to the land - land that was previously occupied by someone else.


CELINA HARPE: You know, after they take all the oil out of this place, what is it going to look like, and what are our kids - are going to live on, you know?

LIMBONG: In one scene of the book, Beaton finds this video of Celina Harpe, an elder of the Cree community of nearby Fort MacKay talking about the impacts the industry has had on Indigenous people.


HARPE: Our lives are ruined. Our lands are ruined - our water, the air, everything.

BEATON: When the companies came in and they're like, we're going to build these oil companies right here, I don't think there was much say for the First Nation communities around. It was just put right there. And now they have increased rates of cancer.

LIMBONG: And these First Nations communities found themselves, for better or worse, economically linked to these oil companies.

BEATON: But what choice did they have but to be involved or to be completely crushed?

LIMBONG: The book is called "Ducks" after a couple hundred migrating docs landed in Canadian oil sludge and died. In the grand scheme of ecological disasters, it wasn't that bad. But the ducks were cute, and it became front-page news, and people started speaking out against the oil companies. Listen to Beaton talk about her time in the oil sands, and she's weighted by everything that didn't make the front-page news, like those Indigenous communities ruined by oil companies.

BEATON: And it existing at the same time as people going out there because they need to have a job - it makes me cry. I hate it. And I can't blame the people in Fort McMurray who are like, you know, we're very proud of the lives that we're building for ourselves here because we're trying to make a decent living for ourselves. Everybody wants the oil sands to be - not everybody - but, you know, they want it to be one or the other, all good or bad. And life isn't that way.

LIMBONG: Midway through the book, Beaton befriends an older guy named Doug. He's kind of grumpy but nice to her because Doug's from Cape Breton, too. And after a particularly miserable stretch of time, Beaton asks him if he likes it here, working in the camp. And in a panel all to himself, Doug replies, it doesn't matter.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.


MACNEIL: (Singing) We are an island.

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