Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin’s latest historical fiction novel (after her debut, Alice I Have Been) is based on another fascinating woman.  Lavinia Warren Bump is born in Middleboro, Massachusetts in 1841 and by the time she is ten it is clear she, along with her sister, Minnie, has a condition known as proportionate dwarfism (six siblings were of average and even above average height).  This means Lavinia, or Vinnie, as her family calls her, will never be taller than thirty-two inches but her features are in perfect proportion.

Vinnie trains to be a teacher and proves capable at age 16 of maintaining order in a class of young students who tower over her.  But her appearance makes her of special interest to the sideshows and museums of her era; it turns out that people will pay good money to see an adult woman the size of a doll.  Approached by a cousin who proposes she take advantage of this, Vinnie shocks her family by packing her bags and eagerly joining a troupe of entertainers on a Mississippi riverboat as a singer.

Thus begins a rollicking show biz career.  Vinnie eventually comes to the attention of  P.T. Barnum and after joining his American Museum she is soon a nationally known personage being wooed by not one, but two diminutive suitors, Commodore Nutt and General Tom Thumb.  The title of the novel lets you know who prevails, but her marriage to Tom Thumb is only one aspect of a riveting novel about the life of this tiny woman with huge ambitions.

I was captivated by Vinnie’s determination to have as big a life as possible, despite her size.  I was fascinated by the world Vinnie inhabits as an entertainer and how far she is willing to go for publicity.  She was a celebrity before movies, before television, before the Internet.  I was sympathetic to Vinnie’s distress when she realizes that there are consequences to fame and that there are some limits placed on her by her size.  Even when she’s acting like a diva, I still rooted for her.  Highly recommended.

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