SARAH KATHRYN YORK
"The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré"
You can’t judge a book by its cover, or its size. "The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré," by Sarah Kathryn York, measures 4½ by 6 inches and is a scant 206 pages.
A finalist in the Best First Book category in the High Plains Book Awards, the small book is a compassionate tale about a big man. It is based on the true life of the “giant” Edouard Beaupre, the eldest of 20 children who was born in 1881 in Willow Bunch, Saskatchewan.
A normal-sized baby and young boy, he soon saw his size increase dramatically. By age 9, he was 6 feet tall, and by the age of 17, he was over 7 feet. As a teen, Beaupré was a first-rate horseman with dreams of becoming a cowboy. But he was a young man torn between the uneasy need and desire for money and the lonely reality of being unable to escape his stature. To help support his family, he toured the North American freak show circuit, where over the next few years he wrestled strongmen and performed various feats of strength. (His signature stunt was crouching underneath a horse and lifting it up to his shoulders.)
Life on the road was not easy or healthy for Beaupré. In 1902, he was 8 feet, 2 1/2 inches tall and weighed 400 pounds. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and by the time he reached the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, his rapid growth and the disease had taken a heavy toll on him. He died at 23.
Tragically, Beaupre’s family could not afford to transport him home for burial. His father believed he would be laid to rest in St. Louis, but when the circus reneged, the remains were embalmed and put on display. Even later, Beaupré’s body underwent experiments and dissections at the University of Montreal. The promised burial was forgotten.
York’s novel opens 40 years later, in the 1950s, with a Montreal radiologist investigating the cadaver of the famous Willow Bunch Giant, trying to solve the mystery of why the preserved body is now shrinking.
York gives us Edouard’s colorful life in a series of linked stories rather than one chronological narrative. Thankfully, she conveys more wonder than sadness, using biographical and historical research to recreate the lives of Métis and Québécois ranch hands, retired fighters and circus freaks. York portrays Edouard as gentle, shy, handsome and multilingual (he spoke five languages). She encourages us to imagine Edouard not as a freak but as deeply human, with the same hopes, dreams and fears as any young man at the turn of the century.
Her wonderful and touching novel explores the relationship between the body and the life lived. Why are we simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by people who are exceptionally different from us? In posing this question, York encourages us to imagine the very real life of Edouard Beaupré.
Corby Skinner is the director of the YMCA Writer’s Voice and founder of the High Plains BookFest.