Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands

Kate Beaton's many devotees revere her for the award-winning series Hark! A Vagrant. Perhaps lesser known is the provenance of those erudite, playful histories: they began as a webcomic while Beaton worked in the oil fields of Alberta, Canada. In Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, Beaton draws on those crucial experiences to create an impassioned, astonishing memoir.

In 2005, Beaton was 21, a university graduate with an arts degree. Beloved, beautiful Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is home but lacks employment opportunities. Fish, coal and steel exports are gone: "Its main export is people. It's not a unique story in Atlantic Canada." Beaton is desperate to pay off "debilitating student debt" and follows "the good job" west into harsh, isolating territory. She moves from site to site--each seemingly more remote. Plenty of her coworkers share geographical origins (East Coast) and economic goals ("the good money, the better life"). Her revelations about people, relationships and her own self prove both wrenching and reassuring.

In immersive black, white, gray and blue-tinted panels, Beaton bears powerful witness to desperate adversity and redeeming goodness with sharp candor and unexpected humor. Her panels are strikingly emotive: furrowed eyebrows demanding attention, an undecorated artificial Christmas tree on its side, clenched fingers during a difficult conversation. As if to remind readers of what's happening beyond, Beaton regularly inserts zoomed-out landscapes underscoring the devastating cost of such lucrative opportunities beyond the human toll. Beaton's memoir, despite an almost 450-page count, is a mesmerizing story that readers will want to devour in a single sitting. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

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