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The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

by Melanie Benjamin

At only thirty-two inches in height, Lavinia Warren (“Vinnie” for short) is a dwarf, born to normal-sized parents.  Her family wants to keep Vinnie at home, but she finds that life too small and contained for her ambitions. She decides to go into show business, first with a Col. Wood and then with Mr. P. T. Barnum himself. With Barnum, Vinnie finds a true partnership, as her new employer appreciates her ready wit and natural showmanship. Together they dream up schemes to increase Lavinia’s fame and draw in the crowds to Barnum’s museum. Under his tutelage, Lavinia meets Abraham Lincoln, travels around the world and marries General Tom Thumb, another dwarf performer, in the wedding of the century.

Lavinia is admirable for her determination and absolute refusal to let her size dictate her future. Throughout the book, she is shown taking the initiative – when her first tour with Col. Wood ends in disaster, she returns home to recover, but after a few months sends P. T. Barnum a letter advertising her talent instead of waiting to be discovered. She negotiates her contract with him directly, rather than letting her family do it as a modest young lady should. But this determination leads Lavinia to be very cold. She marries her husband because of the effect their union will have on performance receipts, not from love – and throughout their marriage treats him as little more than a nuisance. There’s never any intimacy between them, although he clearly wants it.    I just feel so sad for Charles – Tom Thumb – and the sad sham of a marriage he endures.

What redeems Lavinia is her absolute dedication to her younger sister, Minnie. The two tiny women – Minnie is also a dwarf - travel with P. T. Barnum for several years, and Vinnie does her best to protect Minnie from the dangers of the world. At times, she is controlling, continuing to treat her sister like a small child well into her adult years. But this is always somewhat redeemed by the fact that Vinnie’s motivation is love. If her relationship with her husband brings out the worst of Vinnie’s character, her sister brings out the best.

All in all, Melanie Benjamin’s latest novel is convincing as a 19th century memoir. Lavinia’s voice sounds authentic to the time period, and her recollections alternate between entertaining and poignant. Between chapters, snippets of newspaper articles and advertisements help provide context for what was happening in the wider world. I really enjoyed the book, and now plan to seek out Benjamin’s previous novel, Alice I Have Been.

4 out of 5 stars


To read more about The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

A photograph of Mrs. Tom Thumb from the 1860s


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Aug. 18th, 2011 03:28 am (UTC)
I really want to read Alice, I have been....now I wanna read this one too!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


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