Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

There was a time long before you or I was born when to be a celebrity was an achievement. Prior to 1900 celebrity status was something that only a criminal, a war hero, a vaudevillian, a fallen woman or someone with a title could reach. It wasn't as easy as up loading a video to the Internet or saying something stupid to a reporter. It required great effort and not an insignificant amount of luck.

One of the biggest celebrities of the 19th century was the 32 inch tall Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump also known as Mrs Tom Thumb. Vinnie, as she was called, was born in Massachusetts in 1841. She was born into a normal sized family. Her three older siblings were all average height. Only Vinnie and her younger sister Mabel stopped growing as toddlers. They were perfectly proportioned dwarves.

Author Melanie Benjamin has already (Very!) successfully fictionalized the life of woman brought to prominence by someone else, Alice Liddell Hargreaves of Alice In Wonderland in her novel Alice I Have Been. Now with her new novel, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Benjamin imagines the life of another woman whose life was taken over by someone else. In this case it was P.T. Barnum. Could Benjamin be inventing a new genre? I hope so. Her subject choices are fascinating and her writing is wonderful. I could stand another few decades of novels like these.

Vinnie lived one of those lives that beg the "you couldn't make this up" description. At a time when the average woman lived a family-centric, incredibly hard working life Vinnie looked for ways to assert her independence. She didn't see herself as a victim or handicapped. Vinnie allowed the world to define her by her size but on her terms. She chose to be a victor not a victim. She brought herself to the attention to Barnum. He made her a star and then married her off to a superstar. Her wedding pushed the Civil War off the front pages for a week. She was a favorite of kings and presidents.

Although this is Vinnie’s story told from her point of view, it is not the story of Saint Vinnie. This woman was a handful. Benjamin uses the relationships in Vinnie’s life to effectively play off Vinnie’s public charm and stoicism against her private fears and isolation. Benjamin does not let all the important people in Vinnie’s life fall by the wayside either. Her sister Mable, her husband Charles Stratton a.k.a. Tom Thumb and Barnum are all fully drawn.

Benjamin fully explores the home life, the show biz life and the personal life of Vinnie all the while keeping the America of the 1800's squarely in the picture. The events, culture and attitudes of the period are perfectly captured. In that way The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a vest pocket Ragtime. It has the same tremendously engaging layering of personality and history---only with a much smaller cast of characters.

I was enchanted with The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb from beginning to end. Melanie Benjamin has written a powerfully entertaining portrait of an amazing woman who lived a remarkable life.

Does it have a beautiful cover? Kudos to whoever did the cover for Alice I Have Been as well. Perfect.

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