Monday, August 1, 2011
Published July 2011 by Random House Publishing
Source: the publisher
Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump was born on Halloween in 1841 to a farm family in Massachusetts, a perfectly ordinary baby just as her three siblings had been. For a year, she grew normally. Then, almost without being noticed by her busy parents, she simply stopped growing. Lavinia, or Vinnie as she was known by family and friends, reached her peak height of 32 inches not long afterward. Her family was never quite sure what to make of her. She was sometimes an embarrassment to her siblings and always a concern to her mother who found danger lurking everywhere for her tiny daughter.
Vinnie, unlike her even smaller younger sister, Minnie, was much less concerned with what she should be afraid of as she was with what she wanted to be able to do. When the local school board offered her a teaching position when she was only sixteen, she jumped at the chance to be able to become somewhat independent of her family. When, less than a year later, Colonel John Wood walked into the family home offering Vinnie an even bigger opportunity. Claiming to be a distant cousin, Wood convinced the family that he could offer Vinnie the chance to travel the country, performing with his troupe, a troupe he claimed was akin to the world-famous acts shown by P.T. Barnum. Over her family's objections, Vinnie jumped at the chance.
Once on Wood's boat, Vinnie quickly discovered that life was not going to be quite what Wood had portrayed. Life on board was sometimes dangerous and never more dangerous than being around Wood soon became for Vinnie. But she had made many friends on the boat, particularly the giantess, Sylvia, who watched over her as if Vinnie were her sole responsibility.
When the Civil War broke out, the troupe found themselves without jobs and Vinnie was forced to return home. As much as she had missed her family and the comforts of home, Vinnie found herself missing the excitement of life away from home. Two years after she returned, she used the fame that she had found on the tour to attract the attention of P.T. Barnum himself.
Barnum was enchanted by Vinnie, less for the fact that she was a perfectly formed miniature woman, as he was by the fact of her intelligence and quick wit, and went about making her the sensation of the world, to much success. In 1863, despite not being in love with him, Vinnie married General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) in the wedding of the century. It was both Barnum and Vinnie's greatest triumph. She became even more famous and traveled the world, meeting royalty and presidents. But her fame came with a price. She would never find true love and she would no longer be able to protect Minnie from the glare of the public spotlight.
I've been anxiously waiting for The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb since I heard Melonie Benjamin talk about it at the Omaha Lit Fest last fall so I jumped at the chance to read and review it. I'm thrilled to be able to report that this book did not disappoint. Benjamin once again takes a well known but little written about woman from history and crafts a novel about what might have been, perfectly capturing the time period in which the story is set. In Vinnie she has also captured a voice which is filled with longing, spunk, and love and fully developed her into a person who is much more than just a public figure. I was thoroughly charmed by Benjamin's story; she has managed to give the reader a full range of emotions, to show the reader both the seedy underbelly of life in the mid-19th century and the over-the-top lifestyle of the well-to-do, and give us a love story on so many levels.