Wednesday, February 28, 2018

785 (2018 #8). The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

by Melanie Benjamin

Mercy Lavinia "Vinnie" Warren Bump Stratton, later Countess Magri, was only 2'8" tall as an adult.  She and her younger sister Minnie were proportionate dwarfs, having the same proportions as typical adults, but in miniature.  They were born normal size to normal size parents, and they probably had a deficiency in human growth hormone, not treatable in the mid-1800s when they were alive.  Vinnie was not content to stay at home or even be just a schoolteacher in her small hometown.  Instead, she first started out as a performer on the Mississippi riverboat of a supposed cousin, then later joined showman P. T. Barnum's American Museum.  She married another little person, Charles Stratton (aka General Tom Thumb) in an extravaganza similar to a royal wedding today.  The couple traveled the world along with Minnie and with another little person, G. W. N. "Commodore" Nutt.

This is the basis for this historical fiction / biographical novel, told in first person.  Vinnie apparently planned to write an autobiography, and some incomplete chapters were discovered after her death and published in 1979 (under the same title as this book).  That, and some other essays she wrote about her life that were published in 1906, gave author Melanie Benjamin a lot of room for interpretation.  About Vinnie's writings, Benjamin says in her author's note (page 419), "there is so much missing from all of these pages!...She doesn't discuss much of anything....She also doesn't discuss her feelings."

Although I did not find Vinnie to be the most likable character (she's rather selfish at times), Benjamin did very well helping the reader to see what the world was like for Vinnie - struggling to open doors, use "normal"-size furniture, etc.  In a way, Vinnie seems to have benefited from being so unique, as some of the typical constraints for women in the Victorian era did not seem to limit her.

And, like all good historical fiction, this book inspired me to learn more about the Strattons, Minnie, Nutt, Barnum, and others mentioned in the book.  Benjamin has lots of great information and links on her website to start with.

© Amanda Pape - 2018

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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