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Off the Shelves: 'Mrs. Tom Thumb honors a little lady with a giant spirit
0814bookreview
‘The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb' by Melanie Benjamin offers a poignant insight into the life of a forgotten historic figure.

‘The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb'

By Melanie Benjamin

Five out of five bookmarks

Last year, I was absorbed in a novel that put a unique perspective on the origins of a literary classic. It gave the reader a glimpse into the mind of the woman who inspired "Alice in Wonderland" by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known to the world as Lewis Carroll.

The novel was "Alice I Have Been" by Melanie Benjamin, a fictitious autobiography of Alice Liddell and her relationship with the famous author.

Much like her previous novel, Benjamin now constructs the account of the life of another obscure historical woman: Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, or as she was known to the world in the mid 1800s, Mrs. Gen. Tom Thumb of P.T. Barnum's American Museum.

"The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb" show us that while a worldwide public got swept away in the fairy tale that Barnum showcased, the reality behind the tale was more mesmerizing than anyone could have imagined.

Lavinia, or "Vinnie" as her family and friends called her, was born to a farming family in Massachusetts in which out of all of her siblings, only she and one younger sister, Minnie, were born of "diminutive size."

Only 32 inches tall upon reaching adulthood, Vinnie was offered to make a living as a school teacher until she accepted the opportunity to become part of a traveling boat show along the Mississippi River, headed by the deceiving, slick showman Col. Wood.

When the advent of the Civil War disbanded the troupe, Vinnie realizes that she can no longer settle for returning home to live on the family farm, now that she has had a taste of fame, despite the degrading treatment she received from Wood.

Thus, she writes a letter to New York and wins an audience to meet the popular Phineas Taylor Barnum and become part of his world-famous exhibition. It would eventually lead her to meet the man that would become both her show partner and husband, Charles Stratton, a.k.a., Gen. Tom Thumb.

Vinnie, as the narrator, points out that this is also the account of her lesser-known sister, Minnie: "I consider it my duty and privilege - even more, my penance - to tell her story, too. She deserves to be remembered; her courage needs to be known."

Though the sisters were the closest of siblings, since they both had the same physical view of the world, they grew up with very different personalities and had their own unique ways of facing a gigantic world.

It would appear that Benjamin has a penchant for female figures of the Victorian era, and she emphasizes on the strength and boldness that made these women stand out and stamp their mark on history. As Vinnie remarks, most women in that time were expected to either marry, or if unable to, live at home with their families for life - they might find a job to help earn money, but most likely could never have a career.

Vinnie acknowledges that either of those two fates would have awaited her, if not for her extraordinary size, though she was a talented singer and performer (one day she would help establish a "Lilliputian Opera Company" with Mr. Barnum), she would have been "lost to history" if she had been a normal-sized person.

What makes Vinnie so engaging, and what makes her truly special more so than her size, is her attitude and perseverance. The drive for her, in Benjamin's interpretation of the story, is to not be forgotten.

"More than that," Vinnie states, "I wanted, desperately ... to be remembered. I wanted my name to be known, beyond this hill, this pasture, this town."

This is a desire I believe almost everyone shares, whether it is being idolized on a grand scale or just being acknowledged within a community. Thus, Vinnie is a character we can all connect with, sympathize with, and cheer for. She personifies how we all often feel small in a very big world, and shows how spirit is ultimately what makes one unique, not physical traits.

"Mrs. Tom Thumb" exhibits Benjamin's writing at its finest, and I am looking forward to find out which fascinating figure from our past she will present us with next, to again see the world through the eyes of the extraordinary.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.

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