Wednesday, January 11, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin has chosen a wonderful protagonist for her latest historical novel, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, or "Vinnie," never grew taller than two feet, eight inches, but she was, according to newspaper accounts and to her own recollections, perfectly proportioned, graceful, intelligent, and lovely.

She was born in 1841 and grew up on the family farm in a small Massachusetts town. Although loved and pampered by her large family, she (and her younger sister, Minnie, who was similarly affected) were nevertheless a source of embarrassment to them. No one knew what to do with the girls, except to protect them from a world much too big for them. But Vinnie, perhaps as a result of her lively intelligence, refused to settle for a life confined to the farm. She was curious to discover what lay beyond.

This pre-Civil War era was a time when people with unusual medical conditions were either hidden away or were displayed as sideshow freaks. One man, P.T. Barnum, had demonstrated a remarkable success at marketing oddities of all kinds. One of his most memorable triumphs was Tom Thumb, or General Tom Thumb, a boy with a condition similar to Vinnie’s own. He had grown-up under Barnum’s employ and garnered fame as an entertainer because of his diminutive size. It was no surprise that others should try to mimic their success, or that Vinnie’s parents would be against the idea of having their children displayed and exploited.

A second-rate showman who owned a riverboat touring company appeared at Vinnie’s home one day, claiming to be a distant cousin. Over her parents’ objections, Vinnie signed on to join his tour. This was her first taste of the entertainment business and despite the shoddiness of his operation and her harrowing escapes from a few nasty enterprises, there was no looking back for Vinnie. What she learned was that she needed a higher class of employer.

Vinnie’s life story takes a turn when she finally meets Barnum, who puts her in contact with Charles Stratton, the man she had heard of as General Tom Thumb. Together, the three begin a lucrative, whirlwind, worldwide, burst of showmanship. Everyone loved Tom Thumb and his wife. While the Civil War raged, the famous couple even knocked news of battles off the front page.

This is a fascinating tale of a woman who refused to be bound by her physical limitations, and yet who drew boundaries around herself that were even more limiting. Although she hated to be defined by her size, the successful attainment of her huge ambitions depended upon the fact that she was tiny.

I enjoyed this story for the narrative’s sake, but I also found it interesting as a book that managed to encompass the Civil War in the US and barely mention the war. Two of Vinnie’s brothers fought for the Union, and yet she thinks of it only in passing, visiting a brother once because her work brings her near. I tend to picture the war as having been so horrific, so huge, so all encompassing, that life didn’t go on during it, which is a ridiculous way to think. Of course people were still concerned with fashion. People were still going out to entertainments. People were still worried about their finances. Vinnie was trying to build her career. She was a self-centered person. She had more important things to think about than the war. I love the way this book shows glimpses of all these other things that were going on at the time.

I also found this an interesting look at the nature of celebrity. It seems extraordinary that this pair could have received such acclaim, have been received by presidents and by royalty, have attracted enormous crowds, because of their height. But then you look at some of today’s celebrities and wonder...

This is a lovely piece of historical fiction and it’s great that Melanie Benjamin has given Mrs. Tom Thumb a place in the spotlight once again!

I almost forgot- This is my first book read for the Historical Fiction Challenge - 2012. Join in and enjoy some great books!