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Campie

by Barbara Stewart

In this new memoir, Barbara Stewart recalls a time in her life when she could not get much lower, financially or emotionally. After declaring bankruptcy, Stewart is forced to start over at age 48 working as a “campie” – a menial worker in an Alberta oil patch camp. Her job is scrubbing the bathroom, changing bedsheets, and washing the floors. There’s a lot to do: the men in the camp are more concerned with working, smoking, and drinking than tidiness. It’s also winter, so the only escape from the camp’s smoky quarters is to brave the sub-
zero temperatures outdoors.

Stewart’s path to putting her life back together is studded with difficulties and roadblocks. She has managed to extricate herself from a bad marriage and raise two children, but things crumble around her after a series of bad decisions and a battle with alcoholism. Stewart doesn’t let herself off the hook for her choices, not even for a second, and her searing honesty is frequently painful to read.

A campie’s job is monotonous, poorly paid, and fraught with the petty politics of the small community. Perhaps Stewart’s greatest fear is losing her sobriety – she’s closing in on 18 dry years, and the camp, where the men entertain themselves by getting smashed and/or stoned with dogged ferocity, is a lousy place for a recovering alcoholic to find herself. 

The narrative is straightforward and at times deadpan. Stewart suffers from loneliness and the shock of identifying how and why her life has unravelled. But she works hard and thinks even harder, and it’s impossible not to hope that things will turn around for her. Presumably, the very existence of this book is an indication that her life has improved. Stewart’s stint as a campie, as unpleasant a job as one can find, is now behind her. Campie testifies to the fact that, rather than allowing the experience to break her, this brave woman was able to use it as a stepping stone toward a new and stable life.