I found out about The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb while perusing a forum thread about books on one of my “mommy message boards”. I have three small children, so reading time is at a premium, but the book was available on unabridged audio CDs from the library network.
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While the title might suggest that this is a nonfiction book, the book is subtitled “A Novel”, so it is a fictional account of a real person’s life. The author of this book, Melanie Benjamin, also wrote Alice I Have Been, a fictional autobiography of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.
With The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Benjamin offers the reader a glimpse into the life of Lavinia “Vinnie” Warren Bump. Vinnie is best known for marrying the performer Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), but she did not have as large a personality as her husband. Stratton was discovered by P.T. Barnum at a very young age, and spent his childhood traveling the world as a performer.
In contrast, Vinnie was born on a farm in Massachusetts. She was born at a normal size, but then stopped growing at around six months. She grew to be a perfectly proportioned woman, with one notable exception- she only grew to a height of 2 feet and 8 inches. Out of Vinnie’s five siblings, only her younger sister Minnie experienced a similar condition.
From a young age, Vinnie stood up for herself. She fought to be allowed to go to school, where she excelled. Even though she was offered a schoolteacher position, Vinnie yearned for more than a bucolic lifestyle in a farm town. When a distant “cousin” comes along with an offer to work as a performer on his “floating palace of curiosities”, Vinnie jumps at the chance to do more with her life.
Life on the river is not what Vinnie expected, but she does make a dear friend named Sylvia. Sylvia is Vinnie’s physical opposite; she is marketed as a giant. Vinnie and Sylvia become dear friends, until they are separated when the troupe disbands at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Vinnie returns home, but remains restless. She writes to P.T. Barnum, and thus begins a beautiful and tumultuous relationship. Vinnie finds a dear friend and mentor, who takes her seriously, and treats her as an intellectual issue. Vinnie’s parents, who are humble farmers, are suspicious of the slick Barnum, and his penchant for “humbugs”. Yet they recognize Vinnie’s desire to do something with her life, and do not stand in her way when she signs a contract with Mr. Barnum.
Vinnie enjoys success working for Mr. Barnum, and she soon catches the attention of Charles Stratton. Charles performed as “Tom Thumb” for many years, but retired. Vinnie feels great respect and admiration for Charles, but she is not in love with him. Still, she recognizes the opportunities that their union may bring, and she marries him.
Once married, Vinnie and Charles go on tour- along with her younger sister Minnie and Commodore Nutt, another diminutive performer, who completes the quartet. The foursome travels all around the world, and have many adventures.
In fact, much of Vinnie’s life is a marvelous adventure. Benjamin has created an absolutely enchanting narrator, and I found myself absolutely captivated by Vinnie’s story. As Vinnie says, “Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define it.” Vinnie does not hold anything back; she shares everything with the reader. I did not always agree with Vinnie’s decisions, but I never felt annoyed with her. The things she did just seemed to make sense. She is fiercely devoted to her sister Minnie, who is even smaller than she is.
While this book is considered a work of fiction, it is based on a real person and real events. I remember reading about Charles Stratton/Tomb Thumb as a child, but I didn’t know very much about Vinnie Warren. Their wedding was one of the biggest weddings of the 19thcentury, and their exploits often pre-empted coverage of the Civil War in the newspapers. After their wedding, they were invited to the White House to meet President Lincoln and his wife. They socialized with the Astors and the Vanderbilts, and they even met a young Theodore Roosevelt at a dinner party at his parents’ house.
In addition to offering a glimpse into the life of one Vinnie Warren, Benjamin also offers insight into the life of the enigmatic P.T. Barnum. It would be difficult to describe Barnum as a private man; he published several autobiographies during his own lifetime, but not much was known about the man behind the magic. Vinnie seems to be the only person who truly seems to understand and appreciate Barnum, and their friendship is very important to Vinnie’s development.
I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, so I am not sure how this was presented in the book, but I do know that Benjamin inserted an “intermission” between her chapters. These intermissions feature articles from local papers that show what is happening in the world at the time. These stories often focus on the mundane, but since Vinnie’s story spans from the 1850s to the 1880s, the news stories offer a glimpse into a changing world.
I would absolutely recommend The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb to anyone. Benjamin is a very talented author, and she has put together a very compelling portrait of a fascinating young woman who didn’t want to settle for a simple country life. With perseverance, she achieved her goals and left a lasting impression on those who knew her.
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