How Kate Beaton Paid Off Her Student Loans

The Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton is also a master of liminal spaces. Her drawings are accomplished and often beautiful, but her work is distinguished above all by the quality of attention she brings to the areas between the panels of her comics. These narrow white strips 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 skillful; she seems to know just what to show and what to leave out, when to draw out a scene to absurdist and excruciating length and when to compress a joke to a single frame. She honed her wit to an exquisite sharpness in her Web comic “Hark! A Vagrant,” a perpetually delightful trove of goofy humor, often about historical obscura, that ran from 2007 to 2018. The drawings in “Hark!”—funny, feminist, fond of erudite slapstick—married a deep knowledge of visual art to an engaging lightness of touch. Beaton riffed on eighteenth-century French paintings; scattered anachronisms with gleeful abandon; and called attention to people, often women, unfairly minimized in historical narrative. Even in her most elaborate sequences, she managed to give the deceptive impression that she had happened purely by accident upon precisely the right line to communicate a haughty glare or an embarrassed slouch. Among a certain type of quiet person who valued a good joke about the Brontës, she became a minor celebrity.

“Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands,” is Beaton’s first stand-alone book for adults. (She has also written and drawn two children’s picture books.) The book chronicles 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 in the oil fields, Katie—not Kate, yet—is there by necessity—she has to pay back her student loans. In form, the book sits at the border between memoir and reportage: “Ducks” is anchored by Katie’s time in the mines, but it seeks to show her experiences as typical of a much larger swath of workers who are lured to the oil sands at the cost of their health, their dignity, and sometimes their lives. The Katie of “Ducks” is the author’s younger self, but she is also the reader’s guide to the intricacies of an all-too-usual life.

“Ducks” is made with the same formal tools that Beaton used to build “Hark!” but those tools have been put to strikingly different uses. Gone are the homages to eighteenth-century French painters; if there is a predominating visual influence in “Ducks,” it is the work of the proletarian Ashington Group, who painted the collieries and barracks where they labored and lived. Each of the book’s dozens of characters is delineated as a simple, distinct caricature, and Beaton loves the disputes and idioms peculiar to the many kinds of people drawn to the ready money in Alberta from all corners of the English-speaking world. (Older Newfoundlanders call her “my ducky.”) As if to underscore the book’s distance from her old lighthearted work, Beaton has filled several of the interstices between chapters and scenes with staggering, gigantic drawings of mining equipment and aerial views of the mines themselves ; the images aren’t beautiful, exactly, but they are excellent, and they suggest the scale and seriousness of Beaton’s ambition.

“Ducks” takes its title from one of the few disasters in the oil sands to make international news: more than sixteen hundred ducks landed in a pond of toxic waste and died.Art work ©Kate Beaton / Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly

In the book’s opening pages, Katie lies about her previous experience to get a job as an attendant in a “tool crib,” distributing and maintaining hardware worth less than two and a half thousand dollars for workers in the mine. The work is hard—twelve-hour shifts, six days on, six days off—and the machinery itself is dangerous. The oil sands are an infernal region, with mountains of literal brimstone and lakes of poison. Laborers die in their trucks, accidentally run over by colleagues driving haulers the size of small houses. Alcoholism and substance abuse are rampant; the company tests for marijuana, so the miners simply use harder drugs. There’s not much status to fight over in the mines, and perhaps that’s why so many people seem so eager for it. Katie is obviously 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 workers at the mine are men. The other workers lord their superior responsibilities over her—they have children to feed and wives to cheat on. Her student-debt burden seems comparatively light to them. “People pay off loans every day, you know.” one tells her. “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 walks into her room as she’s talking to friends. “Oops! Wrong room.” he says. “That happens sometimes,” she explains. “When the door’s unlocked.” Her friends, all men, are shocked. “That doesn’t happen to me,” one says. Even among people she knows and likes, Katie is isolated. Late in the book, her boss, Ryan, proclaims that the tool crib where she works is “only good for idiot sons and lame horses.” “And women!” Katie interjects. “What,” Ryan replies, “you don’t want to be an idiot son?” “Ryan, please,” Katie responds, “I would love to be someone’s idiot son.”

The largest entity in the oil sands is a snarl of contracts between state and private companies called Syncrude. Mildred Lake, where Katie works at the beginning of the book, is the base mine for Syncrude, and it sits near a town where many young families live. Later, Katie transfers to another mine, Long Lake, which is still under construction. There are no families or communal ties. Everyone living in the camp is savagely, unrelentingly homesick. The aggressive attention Katie has endured in the mines escalates from unpleasant to unbearable. “People do things here they wouldn’t do at home,” she observes to Leon, who works in the tool crib with her. “People are bored and crazy,” he answers dismissively. “But is that who they really are? Or are they who they are at home?” she asks. Would her friends from home turn into creeps or worse in the harsh conditions of the camps? Would her uncles? Her father? “I don’t like thinking about it,” she says, later in the book.

Beaton anticipates that the reader, too, may be reluctant to think about such things, and so she approaches her subject from unexpected directions. “Ducks” is a work of more than four hundred pages, but Beaton has compressed its narrative in ways that make it as fluidly readable as a “Hark!” strips. She has also put her skill at omission to new uses. Many of the book’s important events are cropped out, into the invisible areas between pages and chapters, to be revisited later. In the book’s second half, Beaton invites us to ask ourselves how, like our heroine, we missed signs that are suddenly, painfully clear on pages we just read.

As Katie takes on harder, riskier, and higher-paying jobs, her life gets worse. Eventually things are bad enough that she decides to leave the oil sands. She goes even further west, to Victoria, and takes a low-paying clerical job at a museum, which she tries to supplement with various, similarly low-paying service jobs. In quieter moments, she begins drawing the comics that would become “Hark! A Vagrant,” but in short order she is obliged to confront exactly the forces she went to the oil sands to avoid: employers who fire her for any reason or no reason, merciless debt collectors, and near-certain peonage. The alternative is to go back to the mines to help the Shell corporation destroy the local drinking water; the land, much of which belongs to the First Nations; the wildlife; and the planet. She goes back to the mines.

“Ducks” takes its title from one of the few disasters in the oil sands to make international news: more than sixteen hundred ducks near the Syncrude mine landed in a pond filled with toxic waste, known as “tailings,” and died. The images of the disaster, which occurs near the end of her time in the mines, haunt Katie, both because the ducks’ fate seems intertwined with her own and because by working in the mine, she has contributed to their death. The workers at the mines, even in the offices, suffer bizarre and unexplained health problems; when environmentalists plug up a pipe that carries tailings, mine workers are the ones who have to unclog it. “Do I even want to know what kind of cancer we’ll have in twenty years?” Katie’s officemate asks.

In the afterword to “Ducks,” Beaton mentions that her sister Becky, who took a job in the oil sands at Long Lake and is a character in the book, was diagnosed with cancer that led to her death. Beaton wrote about her sister’s illness for new York magazine’s The Cut, emphasizing the failure of the medical establishment to take Becky’s symptoms seriously. “Ducks,” too, is a rebuttal to hierarchies of silence, an attempt to draw attention to forms of suffering that are easier to ignore. The punishing and lonely experiences of the people who perform the actual labor of the petroleum industry are often withheld and concealed—they are inconvenient for employers, shameful for the workers themselves, and difficult for outsiders to grasp. They are perhaps most readily available in metaphor. Under the dust jacket of her book, Beaton has hidden the silhouette of a duck, embossed into the cover with a pretty rainbow-wrapping-paper foil that shimmers like an oil slick. ♦

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