Lolly's Library's Reviews > The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
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Jul 22, 14

bookshelves: historical-fiction, amazon-vine
Read from June 29 to July 05, 2011 — I own a copy

What an enthralling novel! Now, normally I'm not one to get enthused about modern literature, the types of books full of high-minded ideals and deep subjects, books trumpeted by both critics and Oprah alike. However, this is one novel in which I would gladly join the masses and trumpet, push and generally talk it up to those that will listen. Because this is something else altogether, a book which stands apart from the masses of book-club reads and popular fiction. This is a larger-than-life tale, filled with adventures and heartache, excitement, tragedy and marvelous wonders (or wondrous marvels). And while the thoughts and personal conversations of the characters within might be mostly the creation of the author (the real Vinnie Bump left little behind as to her true feelings concerning her life and travels), Vinnie's life, her early days in entertainment, her partnership with Phineas Barnum and marriage to "General Tom Thumb" Charles Stratton, and the tragic life of her sister, Minnie, are all real, brought to vivid life by the skilled writing of Melanie Benjamin. Written in the first person, from Vinnie's P.O.V., which can be a tricky proposition in less-skilled hands, Benjamin has created a wholly authentic attitude and voice. This book is truly an immersive experience: I could feel Vinnie's trepidation as she left her home for the first time when she joined Colonel Wood's steamboat as a sideshow attraction; I could feel the grit and grime as she traveled on the early trains, sitting on uncomfortable wooden seats, dealing with the most primitive of facilities (talk about eye-opening!); I grimaced at the contrary appearance of late 19th century New York, the glamorous buildings and new technologies contrasting with the pervasive dirt which covered every person, building and street; and towards the end of the book, reading the scene concerning Newhall House Hotel fire in Milwaukee, in which Charles and Vinnie narrowly escaped with their lives, I actually found myself sweating and feeling short of breath as I read the scene. I can't tell you how few books actually manage to capture me that well. The thing which captivated me, though, beyond all the drama and danger, was the fact that the woman who lived this wonderful, fascinating, amazing life was only two feet, eight inches tall. That's 32 inches, people! Pick up a yard stick and measure it out and then tell me you aren't amazed by this fact. Her head wouldn't even reach my hipbone! (I'm 6'1" tall, just to give you a reference.) A regular-sized woman of the late 1800s, living a life of such wonder and freedom, would be someone to marvel at and admire. The fact that that woman was only 32 inches tall to boot, that she had to navigate a world so large, so unprepared for her, so full of new marvels and technology and inventions which changed almost daily, makes her story even more unbelievable and compelling. Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump is not just a remarkable woman for her time, she's a remarkable woman for any time.

I loved that the author inserted "intermissions" in between chapters, printing excepts of newspaper stories from the years corresponding to the story's action. Only a couple of the newspaper excerpts concerned Vinnie and/or Tom Thumb; the majority were stories of new technologies (the experiment in 1877 by Prof. A. Graham Bell with the "telephone" on the wires of the Eastern Railroad Company between Boston and Salem, the article noting the conversation was carried on without any difficulty; the suicide of William Godfrey Krueger, the inventor of a flying machine, in 1882, as he waited for a government pension, which was ironically delivered the day after he killed himself, the article going on to say Krueger spent fifteen years studying the problems of his flying machine, the secret of which died with him. [Talk about a what-if proposition!]), stories concerning the Civil War (the attempt to enforce the draft in New York, which led to rioting, death and destruction; the notice of secession of Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama in 1861), among other general interest pieces (an 1855 report of a healthy woman who gave birth to quadruplets taking dinner at the St. Charles Hotel, with the article questioning that, physically, the woman may be healthy, but "morally and mentally she cannot be, for no sane or modest lady would make a show of herself" by sitting in a public place and courting notoriety by producing an unusual number of children; the story about the people of Brooklyn "turning out largely last evening to hear a young lady talk politics, and in very warmly applauding the incoherent nonsense which she uttered, gave a marked proof--not of their good sense--but of their chivalric feeling for the sex." [My god, the condescension!]). These "intermissions" open windows not only into the attitudes of the times (making one appreciate Vinnie's spirit all the more admirable) but also the wonders and horrors she lived through. I haven't read Benjamin's previous novel, Alice I Have Been, but after finishing this one, I'm actually quite eager to give it a whirl.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst Sounds like this is much more up my alley than Alice I Have Been (which, I imagine, has a totally different vibe), especially with the intermissions (awesome idea!). I have to say, while Ms. Benjamin's writing may technically be called literary, it's not pretentious. Hers is what I'd dub "literature-lite." :D


Lolly's Library I'd say, from your review of Alice I Have Been, the two books have completely different vibes. And, yes, definitely not pretentious. She's actually a storyteller, like the literature authors of yore; she may have a message--in this case, one of overcoming incredible odds--but it's hidden in some damn fine storytelling. Which is nicer and much more palatable than most modern literature.


message 3: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst Yes it is. The main problem I have with modern literature is that it seems the authors are trying to write a classic instead of a story. *shrug* Maybe they're not, but it sure reads like they're trying too hard.


Lolly's Library That's what I get, they're trying too hard. They want to be taken so seriously and not brushed off as "light" reading, which is so stupid, so they go deep and dark and make themselves unreadable.


message 5: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst Exactly. There are some literary books I've liked in the past, but it's such a small percentage that I just view the whole field in a bad light. :|


Lolly's Library Yeah, me too. I especially avoided like the plague anything trumpeted by Oprah; you just knew the books she picked would either be sickeningly sentimental or depressingly emotional. No thank you!


message 7: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst Oh yeah, me too. Though I did like The Color Purple.


Lolly's Library I've seen the movie, but I haven't yet read the book.


message 9: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst It's pretty similar as I remember, so it's not like you need to read it, though the book is pretty short.


message 10: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst I just realized how dumb that sounded. Of course it's similar. What I meant was that it's more true to the book than most movie adaptations. Forgive me, I'm still tired. $[


Lolly's Library That's alright, I understand. :) It's good to hear the movie was fairly true to the book; that's always a relief, considering how good the movie was.


message 12: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst Well remember, this is based on my memory. Be afraid, be very afraid. ;D


message 13: by Lolly's Library (last edited Jul 19, 2011 07:39PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lolly's Library I'll keep that in mind...maybe. I'll be afraid of your memory in between being afraid of mine. ;P


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