Wednesday, September 7, 2011

REVIEW: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin


In her national bestseller Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin imagined the life of the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Now, in this jubilant new novel, Benjamin shines a dazzling spotlight on another fascinating female figure whose story has never fully been told: a woman who became a nineteenth century icon and inspiration—and whose most daunting limitation became her greatest strength.

“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.

  • Pub. Date: July 2011
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Format: Hardcover , 448pp
  • ISBN-13: 9780385344159
  • ISBN: 0385344155

About the Author
from her website

Melanie Benjamin was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. An avid reader all her life—as a child, she was the proud winner, several years running, of the summer reading program at her local library—she still firmly believes that a lifetime of reading is the best education a writer can have.

While attending Indiana University—Purdue University at Indianapolis, Melanie performed in many community theater productions before meeting her husband, moving to the Chicago area and raising two sons. Writing was always beckoning, however, and soon she began writing for local magazines and newspapers before venturing into her first love, fiction. As Melanie Hauser, she published two contemporary novels.

By incorporating her passion for history and biography, Melanie, now writing as Melanie Benjamin, has finally found her niche writing historical fiction, concentrating on the "stories behind the stories." ALICE I HAVE BEEN is her first historical novel; THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB is her second, published in July 2011. Having recently signed a contract with Random House for two more historical novels, she is currently at work on her third.

She and her family still live in the Chicago area; when she's not writing, she's gardening, taking long walks, rooting for the Cubs—

And reading, of course. 

Read an excerpt of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
View the book trailer

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My Thoughts
I suppose it would be fashionable to admit to some reservations as I undertake to write the History of My Life.
I guess this book would qualify as historical fiction, right? Author Melanie Benjamin immersed herself in autobiographies of Lavinia Warren Bump Scratton and P.T. Barnum, and created a fictional biography based on lots of truth and fact.

Lavinia was born normal-sized, but quit growing (or drastically slowed her growth) around one-year of age, and at her full height she stood only 32 inches high. She may have been small in stature, but she was not small in personality. Never content to remain at home and lead a quiet, simple life, Lavinia always dreamed of seeing the world. And thanks to showman P.T. Barnum, that's exactly what she does over her roller-coaster career of ups and downs.

During her years with Barnum, a friendship builds (maybe more?), and sometimes it is for him that does things of which she may not agree with or be proud. Eventually she marries General Tom Thumb (aka Charles Stratton), taking on what becomes her most famous role as "Mrs. Tom Thumb".

Her husband Charles Stratton was for me perhaps the most real and believable character in the book, although at times quite unlikable given his "weak" personality. Raised by Barnum from childhood, he was molded into a character that he himself began to believe, never quite recognizing he didn't fit into society and was always something of a farce.

P.T. Barnum is always a showman, and always looking for a way to turn something into a headline, even if it means exploiting friends. However there is a genuine friendship between him and both Lavinia and Charles.

Lavinia's little sister (and when I say "little", I mean both in age and height. Minnie was only 27 inches tall) seems weak and simple and perpetually frightened through most of the book. It isn't until later that you begin to question whether perhaps she was actually the strongest of them all.

Five "words" to describe this book: friendship, loss, determination, worldwide adventure, Greatest Show on Earth

Content Rating: No vulgarity that I can recall, merely alludes to sex and violence

My final word: Well-written and engaging, this book was able to hold me to the end and get me through it much quicker than the average book. However there was something about it that bugged me. I've tried to figure it out, and the only word that continually comes to mind is "pretentious" in regards to Lavinia. But despite this being a little unsettling and off-putting for me, I still enjoyed this story and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and a "novel" novel!

My Rating: 8 out of 10


I received a copy of this book to review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel. The book that I received was an uncorrected proof, but I confirmed that the quotes mentioned were included in the actual published version.

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