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BOOK REVIEW: 'The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb': A Woman in Full
Wednesday, July 27, 2011 - 17:49 Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Despite that disclaimer, of course, the 32-inch high Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton (1841-1919) DID in large measure allow her size to determine her future, as Melanie Benjamin's historical novel "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb" (Delacorte Press, a Random House imprint, 448 pages, $25.00, also available as an eBook) so eloquently demonstrates.
After all, if she hadn't left the family farm of John and Huldah Bump in Middleborough, Mass. (her mother was a Warren, a name she preferred in her show business career), giving up her short (no pun intended!) career as a primary school teacher to tour the Mississippi River on a showboat operated by her presumptive Colonel Wood, Vinnie -- as most of her friends called her -- wouldn't have come to the attention of the premier showman of the day, Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891) of American Museum and later Barnum & Bailey circus fame. Of course, Benjamin tells of Barnum's famous "This Way to the Egress" sign to move people quickly through his exhibit, with "egress" being a Latinate form of "exit."
In Benjamin's novel, Vinnie, back from a more or less disastrous tour of the Mississippi Valley with Wood (who may or may not even have been a relative), writes to Barnum and quickly becomes one of the most famous people on the globe as a personality in her own right and later as the wife of Charles Stratton, much better known as General Tom Thumb. Both were born with a glandular malfunction that produced proportionate dwarfism, with all the body parts in perfect proportion.
Their wedding, during the Civil War, pushed the bloody conflict off the front pages as the world marveled at the union of the two perfectly downsized human beings, who insisted on being treated as full-size, real human beings rather than as freakish living dolls. Lavinia and Charles never had a child, as she feared what happened when her younger sister Huldah Pierce Warren Bump, known as Minnie, died giving birth to a normal-sized child. Minnie, also a proportionate dwarf, had married another little person in the Barnum menage. Vinnie and Minnie had normal sized siblings.
In her previous bestseller "Alice I Have Been", Melanie Benjamin imagined and re-created the life of the woman who inspired Lewis Carroll's novel "Alice in Wonderland." In her new novel, Benjamin explores the life and times of a marvelous woman she discovered in the pages of E.L. Doctorow's historical novel "Ragtime."
Vinnie comes across as a fully realized human being, with all the virtues and faults of a normal sized one, plus the peculiar ones of a miniature woman. This is particularly evident in Benjamin's telling of the extremely complicated relationship with Barnum -- one even more complicated than her marriage, which is saying a lot.
Charles Stratton, AKA Tom Thumb, is afflicted with even more angst than Vinnie, as Benjamin shows us when the couple was trapped in the Jan. 10, 1883 Newhall House hotel fire in Milwaukee and Charles Stratton feels shame because he couldn't rescue his wife, who was guided out of their smoke-filled room by another man, while he clung to the back of his rescuer. Stratton died later that year, some say of a broken heart as well as complications of injuries suffered in the fire The blaze claimed 71 of the 300 occupants of the hotel.
Comparisons with "Ragtime" and other period piece novels will be inevitable, but I found a distinctive Melanie Benjamin voice in "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb." If anything, a better comparison would be to novelist Sara Gruen, author of "Water for Elephants" and "Ape House" (see my Sept. 8, 2010 review of "Ape House" at http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/100908-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html.
Both Benjamin and Gruen take facts and people, real and/or imagined, and turn them into works of art, as of course does Doctorow in his historical novels "Ragtime," "World's Fair," "Billy Bathgate," "Welcome to Hard Times," and "Homer & Langley," about the hoarding champions of all time, the Collyer brothers of New York City (see my Sept. 11, 2009 review of this "Homer & Langley" at: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/090911-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html).
Without being an out-and-out feminist screed, "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb" succeeds as a story of a woman who finally succeeded in living her life her way in all aspects, a woman in full, to borrow part of a title of Tom Wolfe's novel. It's full of humor, too, despite the tragedy of Minnie's death and the fire in Milwaukee. If you love well-crafted historical novels as much as I do, "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb" will be perfect summer reading.
About the Author
Melanie Benjamin is a pseudonym for Melanie Hauser, the author of two contemporary novels. Her first work of historical fiction as Melanie Benjamin was "Alice I Have Been". She lives in Chicago, where she is at work on her next historical novel. Her website: www.melaniebenjamin.com.