Monday, October 24, 2011

REVIEW: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

At 2 feet 8 inches tall, Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump knows she is destined for bigger things in life.  Unlike her sister Minnie who is the only other person in her family to share in her dwarfism, “Vinnie” is not content to live out her life at home on the farm in Massachusetts.  She wants the world to remember her.  Begging her parents for the chance to get an education and not be kept back because of her size, Vinnie applies herself to her studies and does so well she is offered a teaching position at the school when she graduates.  This does not diminish Vinnie’s hunger to see the wider world and when distant cousin Colonel Wood comes knocking with an offer to be a singer on a Mississippi showboat, Vinnie jumps at the chance.  She soon learns that the Colonel is not as honest as he seemed and the showboat is a leaky tub housing a freak show full of oddities for the customers to ogle.  The showboat occupants make the best of their situation and soon gain quite a following along the Mississippi. When the Civil War erupts, Vinnie and her fellow performers see this as their opportunity to escape their contracts with the Colonel.  Vinnie goes home but the longing to be center stage returns and she writes the great P.T. Barnum in the hopes she can join his show.  When Barnum accepts, Vinnie is catapulted onto the world stage and meets Charles Stratton a.k.a. General Tom Thumb, the man who will be her husband.

To be honest, I was more interested in reading Benjamin’s first novel Alice I Have Been than I was this one but it caught my eye at the library and now I am glad I picked it up.  This fascinating story of a woman who did not let her differences get in the way and who used her mind to pursue her dreams but would not let anyone into her heart sucked me in right away. Vinnie did have the capacity to love as she adored her sister Minnie but when it came to those associated with her career (including her husband!) she didn't really move beyond affection.  She also had a rather interesting relationship with P.T. Barnum as I think they saw each other as kindred spirits and he seemed to be the only other one that might have been able to crack Vinnie's facade. I admit, some of the choices she made in the book seemed rather cold but I liked seeing the character flaws in addition to her professional triumphs.

Benjamin paints a detailed picture of America during this time-the tension filled days leading up to the Civil War, the descriptions of New York society, the growth of the US railroad system, and the portrait of the Old West which was still dealing with quite a bit of lawlessness (train robberies, skirmishes etc..) and it is all seen through Vinnie's unique viewpoint as she was always looking up at the rest of the world.

There were moments in this book where I really wished for Vinnie to realize her dreams, moments where I felt sorry for her feelings of helplessness, moments I wanted to shake her for being so selfish, moments I laughed at her wittiness and even tender moments where I got unexpectedly choked up a little.  That is a lot of emotion for one book but I really loved following Vinnie on her journey. I would like to note that some may be a little misled by the title but this is a novel and not an actual autobiography.  I am glad Melanie Benjamin decided to pluck Lavinia's story from obscurity and tell it in this book.  I may not have liked Vinnie throughout the entire account but at least I felt I understood her by the end.  Recommend giving this a try.  You might be pleasantly surprised like I was.

 I borrowed this book from the Library


  1. I picked up this book at Waldenbooks just before they closed -- a real bargain. I'm looking forward to reading it. Great review!

  2. I haven't had the chance to read either of her books yet, but I have Alice I Have Been on my shelf. I am fascinated by the character, but your descriptions of the time period make me want to read it for those reasons too. Thanks for the great review.