May 5, 2012

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, by Melanie Benjamin

This lovely book is a novelized, first-person account of the first forty or so years of the life of Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, later known as Lavinia Warren. Vinnie, as she was known to family and friends, was born about twenty years before the Civil War in rural Massachusetts as a normally sized baby, but stopped growing when she was two. She was afflicted with proportional dwarfism, and never grew over two feet and eight inches. Intelligent and proper, Vinnie was a school teacher for a year before getting into show business, eventually forming a partnership and friendship with the famous P.T. Barnum, through whom she met her husband, Charles Stratton, also known as General Tom Thumb, who had the same medical condition. The couple was immensely popular due to their perfection in miniature and traveled around the world, meeting kings and queens and all the best society. It takes a bit to get used to Vinnie's voice (as interpreted by Benjamin), as she is a most proper 19th Century lady, but eventually the tone ceases to be distracting and we are pulled wholly into Vinnie's remarkable story. Benjamin did a great job of bringing a larger than life character (please pardon the play on words) into stunning realism, though she makes it clear in her afterword that though we have many of Vinnie's own writings, she addresses her emotions and feelings only rarely, so Benjamin took it upon herself to give Vinnie more depth of character. Despite the incredible circumstances, Vinnie's story is completely familiar: fear, love, and self-doubt are tropes common to all people, no matter their size or fame or fate. Vinnie spent nearly her entire life under a bright spotlight, yet remained surprisingly unknowable and aloof. With this novel, Benjamin has given her new life and a little more soul, and I was utterly charmed.

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