Sunday, July 15

The Giant of Seville

A "Tall" Tale Based on a True Story
by Jan Andreasen
Abrams 2007

Playing off the size of the subject at hand, this book isn't so much a tall tale as much as it's a tale about a tall gentleman named Captain Martin Van Buren Bates.

Captain Bates has arrived in Seville, Ohio hoping he has found a suitable place to start up a home. The Captain's concerns center around his (and his wife's) eight-foot frame. Captain Bates has arrived by train with his legs stretched across the aisle over both sets of seats, his torso hanging out the window to accommodate him. He makes his way to a rooming house in town and inquires about a room for the night. When he sleeps in a normal bed his legs from the knee down hang out the window, warmed at night by the fire set and stoked by the boarding-house owner. In the morning he eats an army's worth of flapjacks. He joins everyone at a dance that night and while he's mindful of bumping his head on low ceilings he manages to break through the floor and climb out the basement embarrassed.

In the end Captain Bates decides it's time to move on, that he and his wife could never settle in Seville, but the townfolk have a surprise for him. They have begun the framework on a proportionally sized home for the Captain and his wife. And that was how Captain Bates became the giant of Seville.

When it comes to tall tales we make allowances for exaggeration because that's a large part of what American Tall Tale folklore is about. Pecos Bill lived with coyotes and used rattlesnakes for ropes and rode tornadoes the way other cowboys rode broncos. Paul Bunyan clear-cut the Dakotas and dug the Erie Canal with the handle of his axe (and with the help of a giant blue Ox named Babe). And where folk heroes were based on real people -- Mike Fink or Davey Crockett -- their real exploits were often exaggerated, retold, or taken out of context in ways that made them sound more interesting than they might have been if truth had been strictly adhered to.

I'm mentioning all this because there really was a Captain Martin Van Buren Bates who was nearly eight feet tall and was married to a woman just slightly taller than himself. Given that this story is based on a real individual would put its telling in semi-fictitious camp, asking us to forgive certain exaggerations in favor of telling a tale based on truth. But the only truth in this story is the fact of the man himself and his setting up home in Seville upon retiring from the circus; Everything else is pure fancy, and most of it a little baffling to me.

A railroad car might not be the most spacious of accommodations for an eight foot tall man, but he wouldn't be able to stretch his legs across the aisle and hang his upper body out the window. Nor would he dwarf the folks of Seville so much that they all appear half his height -- that is to say nearly four feet at the tallest. And assuming even a short bed at five feet long the Captain's legs might have been able to rest on the window sill (as they do in the first shown illustration) and not bend at the knee outside the same window (when you flip the page).

Yes, I am being picky about this because the exaggeration, and the inconsistency of the exaggeration, undercuts the telling of the story almost as much as the factual detail included at the end of the book undercuts what we have read up to that point. Davey Crockett fought at the Alamo and was a US Representative but he also allegedly killed him a bear when he was only three years old. Killing the bear wasn't the important part of the legend, it was doing it at a young age. Being tall doesn't make one a folk legend, it's what you do with it, and it requires more than sleeping with your seven foot long legs hanging out a window or falling through the floor. The Captain was a tall man and he fought in the Civil War and worked with the circus but none of that comes out in the story, and you can't just hang a tall tall on a tall person and expect that to be the whole story.

Ultimately this is a dull little story that attempts to make a real person legendary without really giving the reader anything to feel awestruck about. Honestly, the man may have weighed as much as two hefty men, but are we supposed to find heroic his eating enough pancakes to feed a town? Perhaps if that eating brought with it the strength and prowess of a John Henry...

Here's a new rule of thumb for future picture books: No more "based on a true story" books. Either tell the story of a real person or make up a story inspired by a true person or event -- without mentioning the source. No more of these hybrids or attempts to lend credibility and weight to flimsy storytelling.

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