Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Book Review: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Like most kids, I was fascinated with the Guinness Book of World Records, especially the editions with the medical anomalies: the Chinese conjoined twin brothers who were married to sisters, the "caterpillar" man, the lady with half a twin coming out of her belly, the tallest man in the world, and the smallest couple ever, General and Mrs. Tom Thumb. I think a part of me, as a child, never really believed those people to be real—they must be some trick of Guinness's.

But Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump—Vinnie—was a real person, and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin is her fictionalized story, based on Vinnie's journals, various historical documents, and lots of imagination.

You've probably see photos of the tiny famous couple, General and Mrs. Tom Thumb. They were tiny humans (she was 2 feet, 8 inches tall), born with a form of proportionate dwarfism, touted by the great P.T. Barnum himself as "perfectly formed people in miniature." This is Vinnie's story, one of defying the odds and become first a schoolteacher and then a worldwide star, known as the "Little Queen of Beauty," who dined with royalty and attended parties with the Astors and other society kings and queens. It's also the story of a young woman torn by her love for his sister and her love for a man she can't have, a woman who can't seem to find her own real identity.

I absolutely loved this novel. Melanie Benjamin is a fabulous storyteller; Vinnie's voice comes through loud and clear. Vinnie is pragmatic, courageous, and terribly smart. I loved the friendship formed between Vinnie and Barnum, as well as the relationship—especially the moments that almost happen— with her husband, Charles Stratton (AKA, Tom Thumb).

I think Vinnie would love to know her story has been told, fictionalized though it is, and I suspect the great P.T. Barnum himself might find it amusing—and partly true. Really excellent read!

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