Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
by Melanie Benjamin
Random House Publishing Group Hardcover
ISBN 9780385344159
424 pages
Release Date: July 26, 2011
Available for purchase 

Why did you choose this book? I have heard this book mentioned many times since it was released, and had not decided if I wanted to read it. But when it was on the front shelf in the library and I saw the beautiful cover, I picked it up and took it home!

When did you read this book? September 2011

Who should read this book? read of historical fiction, readers interested in 19th century views of disabilites

Here is a synopsis of ‘The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb' from Goodreads, where it rates  3.78 stars.

“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.

My Review

This is the fictionalized story of Lavinia Warren Stratton, known as Mrs. Tom Thumb to her audiences. At the beginning the book was somewhat slow moving story, especially during Vinnie’s early years before she entered show biz. However, it was an interesting story. The story did not have as much historical detail as other ‘historical’ novels. There was a bit of history to put the times into context, such as the start of the Civil War, and many real people from that time were mentioned; General Grant, the Vanderbilts, President and Mrs. Lincoln. But most of this history was mentioned in passing. However, one thing the book did well was give insight into how differently people thought about people with ‘disabilities’ in the late nineteenth century. The idea of dwarfs, giantesses, bearded ladies, etc, being displayed as ‘oddities’ seems so wrong to audiences of today, but audiences of the nineteenth century saw these people merely as ‘entertainment’! It was also interesting for me to read about things that I’d had some idea about, without realizing it. For example, I did not know of Lavina Warren Stratton, or of General Tom Thumb. BUt I remember hearing of Thumbelina and Tom Thumb in fairly tales. I’d always thought they’d married and lived happily ever after, but when I look up fairy tales, I see that Thumbelina is Hans Christian Andersen and Ton Thumb is Grimm, so perhaps at one time I’d been told of this real-life ‘fairy tale’.

One thing I have learned since reading this book is that the real Vinnie did attempt to write an autobiography, but that it was very ‘dry’; a simple recounting of facts with little or no insight into her thoughts and emotions. The author did an excellent job of taking these basic facts and building a story around it, using her imagination to give Vinnie thoughts and emotions. That was something I had to keep reminding myself of while I was reading, because the Vinnie of this story is not a very likable character. At the beginning of the story, she is a hard worker, and considerate. But as the story develops, she becomes very self-centered, thinking highly of herself and using people for her own benefit. The biggest example is when she marries Charles as a career move. She never gives Charles love, and barely tolerates him. Ironically, she does not like Barnum’s second wife, though she has never met her, and believes she married Barnum only for the money and status it brings her. And as Barnum points out to her, she only comes to him when she needs something and never treats Barnum as a true friend. She is also unable to see herself honestly. She overinflates her singing talent in her mind and believes she has a successful career because of those talents. She does not seem to be aware that to her audience, she is no different than the sideshow oddities. Though she is able to see the value in adding her sister, also a little person, and other little people to the act, she does not see the her ‘littleness’ is what brings people to see her! Even though Vinnie, the character, is not the most likable character I have met, this telling of her story is a good read!

My Rating:  ★★★+ 3-1/2 Stars

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine in which we spotlight upcoming releases that we are eagerly anticipating!

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