Friday, July 8, 2011

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):   In her national bestseller Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin imagined the life of the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Now, in this jubilant new novel, Benjamin shines a dazzling spotlight on another fascinating female figure whose story has never fully been told: a woman who became a nineteenth century icon and inspiration—and whose most daunting limitation became her greatest strength.
“Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define it.”
She was only two-foot eight-inches tall, but her legend reaches out to us more than a century later. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump was encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public. Instead, she reached out to the immortal impresario P. T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and transformed into the world’s most unexpected celebrity.  Here, in Vinnie’s singular and spirited voice, is her amazing adventure—from a showboat “freak” revue where she endured jeering mobs to her fateful meeting with the two men who would change her life: P. T. Barnum and Charles Stratton, AKA Tom Thumb. Their wedding would captivate the nation, preempt coverage of the Civil War, and usher them into the White House and the company of presidents and queens. But Vinnie’s fame would also endanger the person she prized most: her similarly-sized sister, Minnie, a gentle soul unable to escape the glare of Vinnie’s spotlight.

A barnstorming novel of the Gilded Age, and of a woman’s public triumphs and personal tragedies, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is the irresistible epic of a heroine who conquered the country with a heart as big as her dreams—and whose story will surely win over yours.

And here's what I thought:  I really loved this book.  I had already come to it with some knowledge of who Lavinia Warren Bump was, who Tom Thumb was, who P.T. Barnum was, and some knowledge of their history together.  However, I had never thought about Lavinia's real life.   Sure, I was curious, just as I have always been curious about the real lives of some of the people under Barnum's management, but I hadn't taken the steps to try to learn more.   In this book, even though it was fiction, I felt like I really got to know Lavinia, and thought about what her life was like, not only as a small person, but as a woman at that time in America.
 As you can see from the summary (and see the picture to the right), Vinnie was only 32 inches tall.   If you're not sure how tall that is, grab a measuring tape -- it's pretty small.  Imagine living as an adult, at that height.  Imagine trying to reach an average wash-basin, or door handle, or bed.  Imagine living as an adult, at that height, in the mid-1800s.  People tend to treat you like a child, because you are small -- which can be irritating, or even dangerous.

I found that while I didn't always like Vinnie, I was always impressed by her tenacity and determination.  As she says, (p. 25), "Never would I allow my size to define me.  Instead, I would define it.  My size may have been the first thing people noticed about me but never, I vowed at that moment, would it be the last."  And, indeed, she was true to her word.  She is intelligent and has beautiful manners, and this is what she focuses on to make an impression on the people she meets.  She is a bit of a controlling personality, but I found that understandable -- due to her size, if she didn't take decisions into her own hands, she could easily have been taken advantage of.  

I really liked that the author put in a lot of nonfiction details into the story, in addition to what was true about Vinnie's life.  For example, Vinnie stays at the DeSoto Hotel in Galena, IL at one point, and I'm quite familiar with Galena, having visited there several times.  The details about traveling by train are accurate, and so descriptive that it made me feel grimy (which train travel was at the time -- it was dirty).  I got so caught up in the story that I tended to forget that it wasn't a non-fiction book.  The author's writing is so descriptive, and smooth, that I just kept turning the pages -- I literally could not put this book down.  And, after I read it, I found myself reading the acknowledgments, and searching for more about Vinnie and her husband.   I feel that Melanie Benjamin is a true master of historical fiction (this book is her second work of historical fiction, the first being Alice I Have Been), and I'm looking forward to seeing what she does next.

First sentences:   I suppose it would be fashionable to admit to some reservations as I undertake to write the History of My Life.  Popular memoirs of our time suggest a certain reticence is expected, particularly when the author is a female.  We women are timid creatures, after all; we must retire behind a veil of secrecy and allow others to tell our stories.

Thoughts on the cover: 
The cover my book has is slightly different, but I like how it just shows a skirt, with slippers peeping out --- it's very feminine, which suits Lavinia, and also gives the impression that she is just touching the ground.

Please note: I received an ARC of this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.  Thus, any page notations and quotes may differ upon final publication.


Whitney said...

Great review! I read Alice I Have Been last year and loved it. I look forward to reading her newest novel too. Melanie Benjamin certainly has a way with words.

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