Completion Date: July 19, 2011
Reason for Reading: Received review copy from Random House Canada.
In her national bestseller Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin imagined the life of the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Now, in this jubilant new novel, Benjamin shines a dazzling spotlight on another fascinating female figure whose story has never fully been told: a woman who became a nineteenth century icon and inspiration—and whose most daunting limitation became her greatest strength.In a post stating new releases for the coming year, I saw mention of this book. It sounded different, so I knew I was going to have to give it a try. I had heard of Melanie Benjamin following the success of her debut novel, but this was my first time reading her. Can I just start with the gushing now? I loved this book! This is the story of Mercy Lavinia "Vinnie" Warren Bump, better known as the wife of General Tom Thumb, and her life and adventures. And what a life of adventures she had. Vinnie is a Little Person, but she never let her size hold her back. This book is amazing for what she accomplished in her life, but for the times it would have been equally as amazing if she was a woman of average height. She saw the world and did things that most women couldn't claim to have done.
“Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define it.”
She was only two-foot eight-inches tall, but her legend reaches out to us more than a century later. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump was encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public. Instead, she reached out to the immortal impresario P. T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and transformed into the world’s most unexpected celebrity.
Here, in Vinnie’s singular and spirited voice, is her amazing adventure—from a showboat “freak” revue where she endured jeering mobs to her fateful meeting with the two men who would change her life: P. T. Barnum and Charles Stratton, AKA Tom Thumb. Their wedding would captivate the nation, preempt coverage of the Civil War, and usher them into the White House and the company of presidents and queens. But Vinnie’s fame would also endanger the person she prized most: her similarly-sized sister, Minnie, a gentle soul unable to escape the glare of Vinnie’s spotlight.
A barnstorming novel of the Gilded Age, and of a woman’s public triumphs and personal tragedies, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is the irresistible epic of a heroine who conquered the country with a heart as big as her dreams—and whose story will surely win over yours.
I had no idea that Vinnie was a real person. I had never heard of her before, so I think Benjamin is doing her a great service by bringing attention to her once again. She loved the limelight and the attention, so I am sure even now she would be thrilled. In the notes at the back of the book, Benjamin points out that if Vinnie has been born nowadays, she would have been given growth hormone and likely been average height. Instead, she rose to fame by being a perfectly formed Little Person. She also a sister, Minnie, born with the same problem. When Vinnie married Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), she was working for P.T. Barnum and he had a grand idea of her sister joining the show and four Little People traveling the world together. Minnie was not like her sister, but she grew up fast in this hectic lifestyle and would eventually die in childbirth.
Vinnie was a fascinating character. She was determined that her size would not define her -despite the fact she got her jobs because of her size in the first place. She thought her talent was important, too, so while the men that she worked for saw her size, she saw a crowd of people there to see her and a chance for her to shine. Her first employer was a terrible experience, but despite ups and downs she had a wonderful chance at a career with Barnum's crazy ideas. If she had never joined his show, Benjamin would probably not have even knew of her to write a book about her. He made her famous and the acquaintance of anyone that was anyone in the world she inhabited.
My enjoyment of this book is because I found Vinnie's life so interesting, but it is also because Benjamin captures everything so well. She obviously had to imagine in the details, but she did it in such a way that it seemed believable. You really could see Vinnie at the end of her life recording all that had happened to her. The world in which she inhabits really comes alive, too. Benjamin really did her research on the times and places that Vinnie encountered, but she also includes newspaper clippings to set the stage for what was happening in the larger world during these times. I thought that was a nice touch.
Overall an excellent book that will be finding a place on my best of list at the end of the year.
Thanks very much to Random House Canada for sending me this wonderful book! It counts for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.
This review was cross-posted at The Written World.