“The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” by Melanie Benjamin
Now, imagine being two feet tall at the turn of the century, when physical differences weren’t as widely known about as they are now.
Essentially, your choices are to stay home and be safe, or head out into the world and risk it all.
Lavinia Bump, the real-life heroine of Melanie Benjamin’s “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb,” chooses the riskier road. Born to normal sized parents, Lavinia is one of a group of normal-sized children. (Only her sister Minnie is also small like her.) After an early career as a small-town schoolteacher, she decides against a safe, home-bound life, and heads out onto a riverboat as a performer. Ruled over by a shady/skeevy manager, the riverboat gig soon falls apart as the Civil War takes off, and Lavinia makes her escape – only to soon find herself with the attention of one P.T. Barnum. Under the wing of Mr. Barnum, who she finds herself attracted to, Lavina Warren (as “Bump” is not an acceptable stage name) becomes a celebrity. It isn’t until she becomes married to the most famous little person in the world – Charles Stratton, aka “General Tom Thumb,” that she becomes an international sensation.
Though these events really happened, it’s not hard to imagine it all happening in this day and age.
I mean, really, like these folks wouldn’t have a reality show. (The Kardashians have a few reality shows, and they’re way less interesting.)
Lavinia, Charles, and Mr. Barnum are all real-life characters that Benjamin has artfully woven into a well-crafted piece of historical fiction, much like she did to Lewis Carroll in her last book, “Alice, I have been.” Benjamin is great at taking real events and dramatizing them – and doesn’t feel the need to give clear-cut answers to the hard questions. Lavinia and Charles’ marriage isn’t based on love, but rather a shrewd business sense that Lavinia and Barnum share. A lot of the darker issues about fame are explored – especially adult men’s fascination with Lavinia as a sexual being. Baby sister Minnie Bump becomes one of the more vibrant characters, as she goes from shy little lady to a famous woman married to a normal-sized man and determined to have a child even though she knows it’s risky for someone of her size.
“The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” is a charming book that’s definitely worth your time.
Interested in chatting about this book? It’s the August 2011 selection over on facebook at “SuchABookClub.” Come on by!