Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood
By Hilary Peach
314 pages, $22.00
Tender-hearted, unflinching, and clever, Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood explores poet Hillary Peach’s twenty-year career as a transient welder across Canada and the US. In this first foray into memoir, Peach deftly untangles her experiences working in an industry traditionally dominated by cisgender men—boilermaking—and the misogyny, authenticity, and camaraderie she found there.
Comprised of short, roughly chronological stories from across the breadth of Peach’s career, Thick Skin has an ambling, amiable quality to its prose, as if told by a friend over some drinks. Minor characters with names like Javier or Tommy drop by for a few lines, unintroduced, and leave. The dialogue is snappy and direct, often as funny as it is filthy, honest to the industry patois. Yet Thick Skin is far from inaccessible. Peach deftly guides the reader through various intricacies of boilermaking—both the physical labor and the social/cultural ethos—and provides just enough explanation for those unfamiliar to the trade, but never enough to become overwhelming or slow the pace.
Occasionally, Peach’s poetic sensibilities take a sudden turn for the surreal. These small moments of supposition, often spurred by reflections on the natural world, lack the keen specificity of detail that gives the rest of Thick Skin its vigor, but their infrequency adds a reverent, atmospheric cast to the book.
Most prominent in Thick Skin are the characters—the men and women Peach worked with over her career as a boilermaker. They are gregarious and bigoted, endearing and violent. “Boilermaking thrives in the dark,” writes Peach. It’s an industry where showing weakness leaves you “open to a wide assortment of abuses.” Unfaltering in recalling both the flaws of her union siblings and the real affection she had for them, Peach delves into the inherent contradiction of boilermaking, of an industry surrounded and infused with violence, yet, containing a “startling variety of interests, eccentricities, and quirks.”
Nearly all of Thick Skin’s noteworthy characters are men, as Peach was often one of the only women working at a particular site and many of her stories delve into the misogyny she faced in the industry accordingly. While Thick Skin’s critique of misogyny can feel relatively shallow at points, the book isn’t trying to deconstruct and catalog the systemic forces behind every issue in the boilermaking industry. Peach isn’t here to critique so much as contemplate.
Overall, Thick Skin is an easy-to-read memoir about a difficult-to-describe industry, one laden with toxic environments and toxic people—but good people, too. Often the same people. “If I could change one thing in construction culture, that would be it: the introduction of a little more tenderness,” writes Peach. Filled with affection for her trade, her union siblings, and the various quirks and oddities of the places she’s worked, Thick Skin is just that: Tender.