#BookReview: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Biographic Fiction

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For anyone who loves the historical novels of Sara Gruen, Geraldine Brooks, and E. L. Doctorow, a barnstorming tale of an irrepressible, brawling, bawdy era and the remarkable woman who had the courage to match the unique spirit of America’s Gilded Age.

She was only two feet, eight inches tall, but more than a century later, her legend reaches out to us. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Warren 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 became the world’s most unexpected celebrity. Vinnie’s wedding captivated the nation, preempted coverage of the Civil War, and even ushered her into the White House. But her fame also endangered 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, 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.

Several months ago, I stumbled over a documentary entitled The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz. The broadcast centers on the Ovitz family and after watching it, I went looking for a fictional account of their lives and experiences. Unfortunately for me, their story has not yet inspired an author to put pen to paper, but by the time I discovered that fact, I was dead set on finding a book that featured an individual with dwarfism in the title role. My search for such a title inevitable led to Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.

Vinnie’s path to fame was inherently related to her size, but she did not allow her stature to define her and I love how Benjamin threaded that principle into the fabric of her narrative. The author does not shy away from the daily challenges of life as a little person, but her central themes are those of an ambitious and fiercely passionate woman, fighting to achieve her dreams and face down the world on her own terms. Excuse me for gushing, but I think that a beautiful message and couldn’t help admiring Benjamin for honing it on it as she did here.

The historic elements of the story, however, were less compelling. I found the details pertaining to the intricacies and eccentricities of P.T. Barnum’s amusements fascinating, but the intermission sequences that tied Vinnie’s life to larger world events such as the American Civil War seemed out of place, distracting, and detrimental to the already plodding pace of the narrative.

Though I love what the character represented, I also struggled with Vinnie’s arrogance and self-superiority. I often grew so frustrated with her that I wanted to scream and more than once considered abandoning the novel outright. I loved the supporting cast – Sylvia, Minnie, and Charles in particular – but Vinnie herself tested my patience.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: June 5, 2017

“That's just it, don't you see? I don't want to be taken care of! I don't want be hidden away, a burden! I want to make my own way! To have a greater purpose!'”