1711 Manways and shabby motels
Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood
by Hilary Peach
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2022
$22.00 / 9781772141955
Reviewed by Catherine Owen
“People love to read about work” — Stephen King
The best writers make readers interested in a subject they never imagined they might be compelled by. I think of Cormac McCarthy and horses. Style is everything. In the case of Thick Skin, many may not even know what a boilermaker is nor why they should care about the specifics and travails of this trade, even from a gendered perspective. As a reader, I personally cared, one because my partner, who died at the age of 29 in 2010, was also a boilermaker from BC, and two, because I have worked in male-dominated realms like the film industry too. But I guarantee a background in any of this material won’t matter as Hilary Peach sweeps you up in her engaging, detailed, factual, humorous and deeply personable style. The title stems from an admonition Peach was to hear repeatedly in the boilermaking field: “You just need a thicker skin.” A directive she both tried to adhere to in the early days and resists later, finally asking, in a same-titled chapter: “Why do I need a thick skin? Why can’t you just act like a human being?”
In Part 1: “Booming Out,” Peach begins to recount how, starting at the shipyards in Esquimalt, she learns to tig weld and then begins to travel card to the States. Her poet’s deftness with aurally-rich detail vivifies every story. In each section, a contrast is drawn between the often-brutal work, the crudity of men in the trades who reiterate in a variety of ways, “This is no place for women,” and moments of awe, beauty, and humour such as the trapped sea lion Peach chats with, her mentor Denby’s octopus made of steel, descriptions of “fried chicken and apples,” the taxidermist’s house she stays at, and a meditation on the “complexities of relationships.”
Amid these delights are the nitty-gritties of slog, with super heaters and tube panels, on manways and in confined spaces, welding seams, dropping “grapes” and cutting “roots.” Peach elaborates powerfully on the arc of confidence that she develops after years of work as, by Part 2: “See You on the Next One,” she’s no longer riddled with anxiety at having to do the weld test but instead passes it “without a hitch,” not only able to skillfully undertake any aspect of the job but also, with impressive feistiness, to turn most of the toxic sexism she faces on its redneck head. And the sexism is indeed virulent and, at times truly shocking. From the airport officials who insist she must be traveling on her husband’s permit, to the lewd photograph that appears at her place in the lunch room, to her later, rupturous dealings with a damaged man named Bo who viciously hazes her on a daily basis with sexual insults and innuendoes, Peach must constantly draw on her fierceness, sense of fun (the tale of the mouse tattoo is true genius!) and judicious perceptions to re-frame the parameters of what she supposedly must endure in this “big, filthy, toxic backdrop,” with its “smoke and…noise…poisonous chemicals and long hours.”
By Part 3, “Pulling the Pin,” Peach has become a denizen of the road, the refineries and their “smelly Atco trailers,” the small towns and their “shabby residency hotels,” familiar with the bawdy idioms for tools and procedures and utterly conscious that “straightforward and authentic” ripostes imbued with a sense of ribaldry are always the most apropos mode of countering toxicity. The blend of coarse and poetic dictions is just one of the joys of this smooth and lucid narration. Leaping from the idiom, “move the beam over just a cunt hair” to, a few pages later, an exquisite rural scene where “Small goats browsed at the side of the road” while “Black Angus calves picked their way unsteadily toward a creek” is a profound feast. Peach keeps the trajectory flowing with short chapters, a blend of description, dialogue and contemplation (even incorporating diary entries into the Field Notes segment) and a tone that never fails to include the reader. Occasionally, I felt a few terms could use more definition (come-alongs or turnaround perhaps), some processes were difficult to visualize and might have been rendered more comprehensible by small diagrams say, and I did wish that the years Peach was in these various towns was evident right at the start, below the titles, avoiding the need to dig in the text for how many years passed since the last discussed job. Temporality, in this tale, is ultra-important after all.
The final few chapters describe the winding down of Peach’s time in the field where sexism, ironically, turns to ageism, after knee injuries; one boss informing her that the inspector’s job she desires isn’t “just a retirement plan for worn out old welders.” However, she gets that job, as the story concludes, in a role where she can draw on all the abilities she’s developed over two plus decades in the field. Noticing that more women are finally in the trade and that sexual harassment is being examined and reprimanded more thoroughly, Peach emphasizes that, of all her hopes for construction culture, “the introduction of a little more tenderness” would be paramount. I saw it first hand: my sensitive partner’s gradual crushing as a boilermaker, part of the reason why he became an addict and died so young while working a shutdown at a refinery and living in a scuzzy trailer in Alberta.
Thick Skin is a vital memoir and, as poet Kate Braid reveals in her preface, it’s also a “love story.” Hilary Peach takes the reader into a rarely-seen world and we leave with new knowledge and respect, her style sparking as brightly as a welder’s torch, seaming disparate pieces of the universe together.
Catherine Owen was born and raised in Vancouver by an ex-nun and a truck driver. The oldest of five children, she began writing at three and started publishing at eleven, a short story in a Catholic Schools writing contest chapbook. She did her first public poetry readings in her teens and Exile Editions published her poetry collection on Egon Schiele in 1998. Since then, she’s released fifteen collections of poetry and prose, including essays, memoirs, short fiction and children’s books. Her latest books are Riven (poems from ECW 2020) and Locations of Grief (mourning memoirs from 24 writers out from Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). She also runs Marrow Reviews on WordPress, the podcast Ms Lyric’s Poetry Outlaws, the YouTube channel The Reading Queen and the performance series, 94th Street Trobairitz. She’s been on 12 cross-Canada tours, played bass in metal bands, worked in BC Film Props and currently runs an editing business out of her 1905 house in Edmonton where she lives with four cats. Editor’s note: Catherine Owen has also reviewed books by John Armstrong and Jason Schneider for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster