Coteau Books April 2012, 216 pp. $16.95 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
While many books are touted as life-changing or having the ability through which the reader will gain new perspectives, oftentimes this is overblown hyperbole on the part of publishers. This smallish book, unquestionably, will change the way you think about those among us who stand out for various reasons. In most ways a tragic figure, Edouard and his story, brought to life for a new audience, has transformative powers to heighten our abilities to empathize with our fellow human beings.
Sarah Kathryn York’s short fiction has appeared in both Canadian and American journals. Sarah is a graduate of the University of Toronto Creative Writing Master’s Program. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. Sarah is from Toronto and is a dual Canadian-American citizen, spending time in both Canada and the United States. This is her first book.
York’s writing is superb. Her writing style is both poetic and unadorned. While it is evocative it is not distracting as she humanizes Edouard. This is not easy given her subject matter as it would have been tempting and quite easy to focus mainly on Edouard’s physicality. The author’s brilliance is that she invites us as readers to know that Edouard was in fact a caring, thoughtful and complex young man. While extraordinary for being 8 feet three inches when he died at the age of twenty-three, his deep sensitivity and devotion to his family outsized his physical being. As I read the book, I could not help but think of Joseph Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man, who convinced himself that exhibition in the late nineteenth century was one of the only ways for him to gain a meager living. While Edouard’s life may not have been as trying as Merrick’s, the parallels are compelling. Both men had dreams far beyond the confines of the freak shows of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the following excerpt a teenaged Edouard discusses becoming a cowpoke with his uncle Albert on the Canadian plains:
“I wanna cowpoke,” Edouard said, a faint whine in his voice. He leaned back against the post and stared out at the fire. “Besides, I’m saving up for a nice pair of boots.”
“A cowpoke,” Albert repeated. His nail drove deeper into the wood.
“You said yourself that I’m good with horses.”
Edouard hushed a long time. He sat quietly the way he did in school when the children called him mute. They thought he was stupid. Maybe he was sometimes. Unworldly. Even the tallest girl in class had mocked him, the one child who might understand. Girls don’t mean nothing, his friend had said to comfort him that afternoon, Don’t pay no mind. They were throwing rocks at an old barn. We’re nothing either, he’d replied.
“I wish to hell it would rain,” Albert said to break the silence.
Edouard looked up into the blackness and the swarm of stars. They seemed to go on without him, without the world even, washing through the sky like some great dark mouth had opened to swallow the stars whole. He realized in that moment he had outgrown a living. Outgrown the ranching life. Outgrown horses. He no longer held a place among the things he loved and knew.
York allows us to understand Edouard in a way that contemporary sideshow audiences were likely unable to, more than a century ago. While we remain fascinated by his size, she gives us the gift of narration, monologue, anecdotal evidence and pure fantasy to add further colour to his short and angst-filled life. Rather than mere gawking, we are able to share some intimacies with this complex giant of a man who in small ways enjoyed but in more ways reviled his adult years.
There were a few shortcomings. I would have liked more written by the main narrator, the obsessive Montreal doctor who examined Edouard’s corpse in the 1950s, and ultimately, had more questions about Edouard than when he began. Also, York’s gifts for sensitivity and compassion left me wishing she had delved more deeply into Edouard’s earlier years in Saskatchewan. Finally, I would have really enjoyed some brief speculation by the author on what might Edouard have done if he had lived for another handful of years. She has likely come to know him better than anyone else now and although pure conjecture, her insights would have been fascinating.
Sarah Kathryn York has produced an instant must-read. While there is no poor time to read this 206 page book (yes, that does align with the number of bones in the ‘average’ human body), it will make an excellent summer afternoon or evening read. I cannot help but think that there may be a compelling film version of this story, begging to be made. The book is suitable for mature teen readers and older. I highly recommend it and trust that it will offer a new lens to all readers. It has done so for me and I think that is the ultimate praise for a book.
*A copy of The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré was sent to me to read and review. It was not purchased.