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.
Melanie Benjamin is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE and THE AVIATOR'S WIFE, as well as the national bestseller ALICE I HAVE BEEN, and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE, MISTRESS OF THE RITZ and THE CHILDREN'S BLIZZARD. Her next novel is CALIFORNIA GOLDEN, a dazzling saga of mothers, daughters and sisters set in the vibrant surf culture of 1960s California. It will be out in August 2023.
Born in 1841, Lavinia (Vinnie) Warren Stratton hoped to publish her autobiography, but she never did. Thankfully, author Melanie Benjamin stepped in to breathe life into this fascinating miniature woman's story.
Through Vinnie's eyes, Benjamin shows us the following: 1. at only 32" tall, Vinnie was a proportionate dwarf who, through her shrewd connections with P.T. Barnum, marries General Tom Thumb and becomes one of history's most famous "curiosity"; 2. I was extremely drawn to Vinnie's character, who was at times, both likeable (intelligent, business-minded, assertive), and unlikeable (cold-hearted, vain, snobbish). Benjamin drew me in to feel Vinnie's anguish, humiliation and grief during some of her most trying life experiences; and, 3. Vinnie's possible feelings towards those people most important in her life: her husband, General Tom Thumb; her sister, Minnie; and, most intriguing of all, her relationship with "The Greatest Showman" himself, P.T. Barnum.
Benjamin's successes with this story: 1. her writing style made me feel that I was truly reading an autobiography; 2. I learned the meaning of the word "humbug", and that some of Vinnie's "stories" may have been just that; 3. speech and language were written authentically for this time period; and, 4. the inclusion of a very telling "Author's Note", chapter breaks with quotes from various print sources from that time, Reading Group Pages, and various black and white photos including, most importantly, one of Vinnie herself!
If you enjoy stories about strong-willed women, then please check this book out! Even though Vinnie was small in stature, she was a real spitfire powerhouse!
Many thinks to my Goodreads friends, Annette and Patricia, for bringing this interesting book to my attention.
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a historical fiction based on the real life of Lavinia Bump Warren, an extraordinarily small person.
Lavinia participated in P.T. Barnum’s museum, traveling acts and circus, becoming one of the most popular acts of her era. Her wedding to Charles Stratton, another little person, was such a huge story that it bumped the Civil War from the front pages for a time.
Melanie Benjamin speculates at the end of the book that Lavinia had a pituitary gland problem and today would receive appropriate treatment. But, in the 1800s, no such treatment existed.
As a journalist, I appreciated the actual stories and newspaper headlines from the time period. It shows just how far we’ve come and how the public appetite for sensational stories has never changed.
Benjamin writes a heroine that is so easy to love. Lavinia is different but determined, small and brave. She doesn’t let her size define her and always seeks to be a proper lady, even when those around her aren’t minding their manners.
This book was sad in that, because of her deformity, Lavinia had very few options. Early in her life, she felt as if she either had to display herself as a freak or depend upon her family in a backwater town where nothing ever happened.
In some ways, she never fit in to a world that was simply too big for her. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been.
But in other ways, Lavinia traveled more than any woman of her era would be expected to. She experienced a world beyond the reach of all but the ultra-rich and privileged. There was a high price to be paid for it, but I don’t think Lavinia would have had it any other way.
Benjamin wrote in an unlikely twist in the story that I thought was unnecessary and it soured the ending of the book for me. I understand why she did it but it felt like a bridge too far, especially when the author admits at the end that there was nothing in the historical record to support her creative decision.
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb becomes repetitive in Lavinia’s traveling years. I felt as if I was reading the same thing over and over again.
But I did learn a great deal about Lavinia Warren, Charles Stratton and P.T. Barnum. How extraordinary that these people even existed. It seems like a piece of American history that has been all but forgotten.
Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction novels about people overcoming adversity and about heroines who won’t give up, no matter the odds or size of the problem.
At 32” no one expects anything from her and everyone wants to protect her. As much as she appreciates the protection and love of her family, she still wants something more from life. Coming from a small town, she craves the big world. With her intelligence and ambitious spirit, she goes on to become a legend, dining with Presidents, Vanderbildts, and Astors among others.
Massachusetts, late 19th century. Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Warren Bump is raised on a family farm. Through her hard work and diligence, at sixteen-years-old, she becomes a primary school teacher to a surprise of many. She has proved that her size has nothing to do with her mind or even her will. From an early age she used her talent for singing to sooth her classmates with ballads.
Having her mother crying over Lavinia’s lonely and loveless fate, Lavinia becomes even more restless. When a man, who claims to be their cousin, appears at their house and offers her a position in his show on the floating boat on Mississippi River. This is her chance to leave a small town and experience the bigger world and see things she can only imagine here. But being around actors and dancers, displaying oneself before the public, that’s not something to be proud of. It’s viewed as something shameful. Nevertheless, she makes her own decision.
After an eventful and questionable time on the floating boat, she joins P.T. Barnum, the famous promoter in New York. This time she makes sure she is treated as a professional and not someone being on display.
This wasn’t necessarily a biographical fiction I’d be interested in, but after reading The Aviator’s Wife by this author I was very much impressed with this author’s writing. The dimensions that are breathed into the characters and dialogue that progresses the story and the events that make the story grasping. It’s all a testament of a very skillful writing.
And what interested the author in writing Lavinia’s story was her intelligence and ambition. And that is very well reflected in this story. As much as Lavinia loves her family, she doesn’t want to be taken care of. She wants to forge her own path. “To have a greater purpose.” She is sharp, intelligent, driven. She enjoys conversations about politics, music, art that reflect her own opinions based on her knowledge, and not just a repetition of someone else’s opinion.
Beautifully drawn characters. They are so human with their emotions, showing what makes them happy, scared, disappointed, frustrated. What they hope for and dream about.
Enjoyed small details of the time period, giving a good sense of the time. How it progressed with trains and mapping, and telegram. So you could arrange your trip much easier and book a room before getting there and the talk of setting “standardized time.” So “no longer would each individual village or town set its own clock by the sun.” And rumors of electricity running to small towns.
Heartfelt writing, infusing characters with humanity and passion, keeping the plot moving and bringing the past alive profoundly, showing us the progress of the time and that some things don’t change such as ambition and being driven and taking chances in life.
If you don't see the “A Novel” part of the title, don't confuse this novel for an autobiography or a biography. Ms. Benjamin (aka Melanie Hauser) has taken the bits of available knowledge about Mrs. General Tom Thumb's life, and woven it into a fictionalized and highly entertaining story. Apparently, the actual autobiography read more like a travelogue and was a bit boring.
At 32” full-grown, Vinnie did not want to be defined by her size, wanted to make her own way in the world. Unfortunately, there were few options for almost all women other than housewife, school teacher, or spending a life dependent on family. It was no comfort when a doctor consulted by her parents when she was a child likened Vinnie to “an excellent example of Nature's Occasional Mistakes.” “He assured my increasingly distressed parents that this was not a bad thing, for it made the world a much more interesting place, just as the occasional two-headed toad and one-eyed kitten did.”
How strange that a woman who didn't want to be defined by her size ended up with a career based solely on her size. And that her marriage, from her point of view anyway, was little more than a publicity stunt. Stunt or not, Vinnie became Mrs. Colonel Tom Thumb. And she dragged her even tinier sister, Minnie, into the farce as well.
I very much enjoyed this book. However, I don't think I would have liked Vinnie very much, at least not as she was portrayed. She was very adamant about being treated as an adult woman should be, yet she treated her sister, and then her husband, as though they were children. She was bossy and sometimes demanding, often judgmental when she hated being judged herself. Vinnie was complex and full of contradictions.
There were some writing quirks that bothered me a bit. I don't know how many times Vinnie mentioned her tiny, delicate, well-manicured hands, but after the third or so time, it became annoying. And Vinnie had a habit of giving us, the readers, intimations of what were going to come. Some outcomes were too predictable, even to someone like me who knows nothing of Vinnie's actual life.
All in all, this is a highly readable and entertaining story, but falls a little short of my expectations.
I was given an advance reader's edition of this book and the quotes may change in the final edition.
I love this book! I remember seeing a picture of Mrs. Tom Thumb, aka Mercy Lavina Warren Bump Stratton aka Vinnie, and wondering about her marriage. Was she happy? This was years ago. Then when I saw this book, I had to know as much as possible.
From the first page I was hooked, even though the book is 412 books long, it galloped along. The more I learned about Vinnie, the more that I wanted to know. I could not stop reading about her adventures, thoughts and feelings. How can I do justice to this book in this review? The best that I can say is “Read It”.
Melanie Benjamin has done an excellent job of pulling together Vinnie’s letters, and information about her from the day that Vinnie was born to forty years before her death. How did a woman only 32 inches tall become known around the world. Vinnie could have very easily stayed at home under her parent’s protection with her younger and even shorter sister, Minnie. We would have never known about this unusually spirited woman if she had. Vinnie turned things around, she took her shortness and made it into a reason that queens and kings and other rulers of state wanted to meet her.
I don’t want to tell what happened to spoil it for you but I can tell you what you will feel. You will be shocked, amazed, excited, confused, enlightened, disappointed, sad, happy, and thrilled. I sound like P.T. Barnum, don’t I? That is because even though Vinnie was a star, P.T. Barnum also was her confidant and had a special relationship with him. P.T. Barnum was such a larger than life figure that the author admits that she had to control him for fear of his taking over the book. But Melanie Benjamin succeeded.
So come see, come read about this tiny, intelligent woman who had a mind of her own in the 19th century, see her break barriers, imagine her wedding, as spectacular and Charles and Diana, well, maybe more spectacular. You won’t always like her but you will still want to know about her. You’ll understand when you read the book.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to be amazed.
I received this book as a part of the Amazon Vine program and that in no way influenced my opinion of this book.
Good historical fiction implants the desire within the reader to learn the facts that surround the narrative. This book does not disappoint. I finished this book a couple of weeks back and have been researching P.T. Barnum and his Museum of Curiosities since I shelved the book. I was completely unaware of Ms. Benjamin and if you follow my reviews, (which I was recently reminded, some do.), few and far between though they may be; you know about my reading difficulties. I'm not going to lie. Weighing in at 448 pages it was one of those books I had to decide if the risk of lost time was worth the gain from reading. It was.
This book is a journey back in time as much as it is the fictional narrative of the Michael Jackson/Jackie Kennedy of her time. Famous because of life choices deliberately planned and deliberately executed. Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton embraced the reality of her physical limitations and controlled them rather than letting her handicaps control her.
I plan on checking out Alice I Have Been her other work of historical fiction.
Knowing just a tad about the wife of Tom Thumb was incentive to want to read The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin. Fiction; I knew from the outset that I would be grappling with what was fact and what was the creativity of the author. I listened to several interviews with Ms. Benjamin and also read internet resources about Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton to try to distinguish between the two. I believe Ms. Benjamin did a great job of striking a balance between what is known and what is assumed and gives the reader a fairly accurate picture of her life.
I was immediately drawn into the story as we learn how Vinnie, as she is known, is born a normal size baby but then stops growing early in her life. Vinnie is only approximately 32" but seems to be a tall presence. Imagine that Vinnie could have been hidden for what would seem her own good, never gone to school, never seen or done the things she did. Not for Vinnie. As a young woman she bucked her mother, while receiving the support of her father to attend school. Here she got a bit of a taste of what her life would be if she did not take herself seriously and demand respect. When it was time to make her own way in the world she first taught school, no easy task but using the mindset she gave herself, she earned the admiration and respect of her pupils. Yet, Vinnie yearned for more. When an offer came to join a traveling oddities show on a Mississippi Showboat, she jumped right in and never looked back.
There is so much to ponder here makingThe Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb a great choice for book discussion. Questions arise quickly. What life would Vinnie have had if she remained a teacher? What was her true relationship with P.T. Barnum, with her husband Tom Thumb? Was her marriage to Charles consummated. How did she see other performers? Was she a good businesswoman? Should "freak shows" be allowed? Was Vinnie smarter than Charles? Did she crave the limelight at the cost of others? How about her relationship with her sister Minnie (also a proportionate dwarf)?
What Melanie Benjamin tries to do is get into Vinnie's head, to explore her feelings. This may or may not be accurate but as fiction goes, I believe the author did a good job, giving us a picture of what it must have been like to be Vinnie Stratton. 4.5 stars
Size matters in this world, just as it mattered in the world of Lavinia Warren Bump, better known as Mrs. General Tom Thumb. She was a normal sized baby when she was born, but after a few years she simply quit growing, due most likely to a pituitary condition that would have been easily treated in modern days. She was less than three feet tall, and a younger sister was even smaller.
Before I go any further, let me suggest that you do NOT read anything about Lavinia before reading this book. I looked her up on Wikipedia and learned a couple of details that spoiled one of the main threads of her story. I really wish I had not done that because the suspense was then lost for me. So if you choose to read this book, just jump in, and save any further research about Lavinia for afterwards.
I wanted very much to like Lavinia. She refused to let her size dictate who she was. She was big inside and she worked hard to prove it to the world, always demanding and receiving respect for who she was, not merely for what she was. But was she truly as comfortable within her tiny frame as she seemed to be? Did she truly accept herself? Or was her hectic life and constant wish to be remembered simply a way to run from who she was, to try to be someone she thought she should have been?
It is hard to imagine anyone being on display the way Lavinia and her husband were during their years performing with P.T. Barnum. But the author did a good job of making that long ago world come to full-sized life, right to the tragic end of the era.
If you flat out ask me, 'Do you like historical fiction?' I most likely will say no. However, after reading this book and thinking about it, I'd like to amend my answer to that question by saying that it depends on the topic. That being said, I've also come to a realization that I like books about circuses and carnie folks. I haven't' read one here on Goodreads, but if you look at my Shelfari, I have read several. I've read quite a few that have PT Barnum as a character. This book is about Lavinia or "Vinnie," who is a dwarf woman who has a life on the road. SHe appears in shows singing and people marvel at her tiny size. She also has a sister Minnie who is even smaller, who is a sweet innocent girl who Vinnie just wants to protect. Vinnie's life is changed when she meets the famous circus ringmaster, PT Barnum. What I really liked about this book was the fact that Vinnie was a deep, interesting character who I really started to care for. Peppered throughout this book are historical facts and events, since this book takes place during the civil war. I also was pleased and surprised to learn that Vinnie was a real person, and this author just fleshed out what her life was like. I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, or almost anyone. I have a feeling this book could be big!
I received an Advanced Reader's Copy of this from Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
From the back of the book:
"A two-foot, eight-inch tall dynamo, Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump lived a remarkable life that reaches out to us more than a century later. Taken under the wing of the immortal impresario P.T. Barnum, married to the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, she charmed riverboat gamblers and bewitched the rich and powerful."
Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, so I fully expected to enjoy this book. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. It's very well written, but I just never really connected with this book."
What I liked about the book: It is full of details. The characters and plot are well developed. Benjamin really connected with her characters and that comes through in the writing. Benjamin also paints a colorful picture of the time period.
What I didn't like about the book: For me it was too long and this might be due to the fact that I didn't like Vinnie. She is not an endearing character. Benjamin has portrayed her as cold and unfeeling. It's obvious she loved her younger sister, but she does not consider Minnie her equal. Even her concern for her sister's well being is tinged with what is good for her and not necessarily Minnie. She is cold and unfeeling toward her husband, treating him as though he were merely a co-worker than her husband. There is a hint that Vinnie does feel true love for someone other than herself, which makes Vinnie a little more endearing. However, this is not fully explored and the reader is left wondering.
To be fair, many other reviewers on Goodreads, have given this book high marks. As I said the book is very well written, it's just not my cup of tea. If you like historical fiction and don't mind a rather long story about an unsympathetic character, then this might be the book for you.
Lavinia Warren was only 32 inches high, but had ambitions that were not limited by her diminutive size. She was a real person, more popularly known as Mrs General Tom Thumb – the wife of P T Barnum’s famous “oddity.” In the midst of Civil War, their wedding was front-page news. They were received by Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, and heads of state around the world. They were befriended by the Astors, Vanderbilts and other high society families. They were the Brad and Angelina of their day, mobbed by crowds wherever they went, written about by reporters, the subjects of gossip and rumor, and victims of their own fame. All of this is true, but this book is a work of fiction.
Benjamin does a wonderful job of bringing Vinnie to life. The novel depicts a woman of great intelligence and drive. She is shown to be cunning, witty, talented and strong-willed. She is also vulnerable, frightened, angry, and cold, suppressing her feelings to protect herself as best she can. Her partnership with Barnum is wonderfully imagined and beautifully told. Benjamin gives us a woman who is defined by her character, not her height. All this is presented against a backdrop of historical events – Civil War, the opening of the West, and life in the Gilded Age.
I really liked this book. I was completely mesmerized by Vinnie’s story, and that of the other members of her troupe. I grew up in San Antonio Texas, the home of the Hertzberg Circus Collection. When I was a child I spent many a Saturday visiting the collection, which was housed in the main Public Library downtown. It is the oldest and largest public collection of circus memorabilia in America. There is a significant amount of Tom Thumb memorabilia; one of the artifacts is the coach custom-made for General Tom Thumb. Unfortunately, by 2001 the building had deteriorated so much that the collection was at risk. It was moved to storage and is now conserved by the Witte Museum. It is not currently on display, though the many volumes of books and records are available to scholars for research (by appointment only).
I don't think that one character has made me feel such a range of emotions as Vinnie, the main character in this book has. In the beginning of the book, I was thinking, 'YOU GO, GIRL! Way to not let the size of your body stop you from fulfilling your dreams!' But then for 2/3 of the book, I didn't like her at all- thinking that she was arrogant, heartless and snobby...she says on page 256, " That was it, pure and simple; my life was onstage, next to my husband, either reenacting a pretend wedding ceremony or holding a pretend infant. I had no room for big love, big decisions, big messes, big happiness; not in this miniature life, spent under the magnifying glare of so many eyes, that I had made for myself."...she goes on to state on pg. 264, " I simply felt driven to see, to experience-- to give of myself to those whose approval should have meant less than my own husband's but instead meant so much more..... I simply realized I needed the warmth of an audience like a plant needs sun." All in all, I had a very hard time relating to her as a character, and found her actions so self serving that I had a really hard time liking her.
I received a free copy of this books through a Firstreads giveaway, and I'm very happy I did.
I wasn't sure how interested I'd be in a novel about the life of a famous "little person." However, this story was very well done. The characterization of Vinnie was very complex. At the beginning of the novel, I was just impressed by how ambitious, resourceful, strong and ladylike this woman was. She states several times throughout the novel that she refused to let her size define her. Actually, she used her size to make a life for herself few women at that time would have experienced, let alone a little person.
As the story progressed, however, it became clear that Vinnie also had a coldness and pridefulness about her that prevented her from knowing true happiness. Perhaps she needed that for her own protection. As much as she looked down on her sister and her husband for what she perceived as their weaknesses, they seemed to be able to experience joy in life that she couldn't. I felt awful for the way she treated her husband. Although she'd promised P.T. Barnum she would never treat Charles Stratton a/k/a Tom Thumb unkindly, and she was never overtly kind, Vinnie looked down on him and used him to further her celebrity. I was also disgusted by Vinnie's callousness about the babies placed in her care, and about her contempt for her fellow little people who were unlucky enough not to have her proportionate version of dwarfism.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel was the portrayal of P.T. Barnum. I hope that it is true that he was as respectful of his performers as he was portrayed to be. He had a keen eye for opportunities and was on the lookout for ways to manipulate situations for his own financial gain. He and Vinnie seemed to have a lot in common, and she was portrayed as pining for him throughout the years. However, their friendship was very special. He was interesting because of the various inconsistencies in his character . . . like Vinnie, he was both callous and opportunistic, and loyal and kind.
This is an entertaining novel about a colorful historical figure; however, it doesn't rise much above average and it has a couple of unfortunate flaws.
Lavinia "Vinnie" Warren was a pre-Civil War celebrity: less than three feet tall as an adult, but dignified and ladylike, she made a career as an entertainer and married another little person, General Tom Thumb. The real Lavinia's autobiography was an unfinished and apparently quite dull travelogue, mostly listing places she'd been and people she'd met, and so Benjamin imagines a much more intimate story of her life in this novel.
Benjamin's version is a highly entertaining book. Lavinia had an eventful life: beginning in small-town Massachusetts, where she was born and, as a teenager, briefly worked as a schoolteacher; to a sleazy carnival boat on the Mississippi; to her employment with the famous P.T. Barnum, for whom Benjamin posits that she felt a lifelong unrequited love. Vinnie has a strong voice and a strong personality, and is consistently interesting in her contradictions. She's flawed and, like many people, she misidentifies her flaws: for instance, after convincing her even smaller sister, Minnie, to join her in her work, Vinnie berates herself for not sheltering Minnie more, when the reader can see that the real problem is Vinnie's failure to treat Minnie as an adult. Flawed, complex characters make for good fiction, and Vinnie is certainly both.
On the other hand, the book is quite average in other ways. The supporting cast is mostly one-note: Tom Thumb is childlike, Vinnie's parents loving but ineffectual, Minnie overly perfect. The writing style is adequate but nothing special, with lots of foreshadowing that's about as subtle as a sledgehammer. The recreation of mid 19th century America is always interesting and sometimes quite vivid, but it's not the most immersive example that I've seen.
One of the major problems, though, is that the "autobiography" conceit lacks credibility. This is a novel through and through: not just in the structure, dialogue, and so on (which I can overlook, because I like dialogue), but in that it's simply not believable that the reserved, prudish, always proper Vinnie would write this sort of story for public consumption. Details about sexual encounters and feelings, when she's horrified by even the mention of sex? Private shames, embarrassments and guilts that she keeps even from her closest confidantes? No: Vinnie would write exactly the sort of autobiography the real Lavinia did write, and Benjamin does nothing to convince readers otherwise.
Second, although the book initially promises to celebrate Vinnie's unconventionality, it winds up reinforcing gender stereotypes. "I suppose it would be fashionable to admit to some reservations as I undertake to write the History of My Life," Vinnie says in the prologue. "We women are timid creatures, after all; we must retire behind a veil of secrecy. . . . Rubbish!" Later on, however, the book criticizes Vinnie heavily for her failure to coo at babies (treating it as a major character flaw) and her refusal to become pregnant. She knows that, given her size, childbirth would probably kill her; but apparently her unwillingness to risk it is somehow "cowardly," rather than common sense. This is in stark contrast to Minnie, who's portrayed as a perfect angel as a result of her more traditional baby-loving femininity.
In the end, then, this book did not quite live up to the promise of its early chapters. It's an easy, entertaining read, but not quite as well thought out as it could have been.
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.
In her painfully shallow novel The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Melanie Benjamin proves herself to be an author’s equivalent of an art tracer. She takes what already exists and creates (though I use the term rather loosely) by the addition of words to a page a watered-down, sterile, lifeless version of the real thing. Then she convinces her audience that it’s just as good as the original. A con artist. P.T. Barnum would be proud.
The most ironic joke of the whole piece is Benjamin’s title. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb already exists. Benjamin claims that Lavinia Warren never published an autobiography in her lifetime, but this assertion proves only that Benjamin is a gaff. In fact, Lavinia Warren did author a series of autobiographical articles for publication in the early 1900s. As an aging performer whose fame faded dramatically after the death of Charles Stratton (Tom Thumb), she simply needed the money. In the 1970s, editor and Barnum biographer A.H. Saxon compiled these essays for a book format with the moderately misleading title The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. At its heart, this process and Benjamin’s process writing the novel highlights the complexities of blurry genre with a real person’s story at its center. For her part, Benjamin did some cursory research into the life of Lavinia Warren. However, even within the genre of historical fiction, Benjamin makes no attempt to separate the life of real woman Lavinia Warren from her performance character Mrs. Tom Thumb. Benjamin asserts that because of Warren’s reluctance to write in a sentimental or emotional way about her time as Mrs. Tom Thumb and wife to Charles Stratton, it is up to a writer of fiction to heroically fill in these gaps through fiction. More specifically, with a blatant disregard for the motives behind such an omission, Benjamin presumes that an essentialist revision of her life writing is what Lavinia Warren would have wanted. Particularly in the case of sister Minnie’s tragic death, Benjamin presumes that Warren would have wanted her feelings about this very real situation made public. As a savvy performer and businesswoman, she knew what her audience wanted to hear and to what the extent that her personal emotions should interfere with the story of Mrs. Tom Thumb. If Warren wanted that information to be made public, she would have written about it on her own life writing—a fact that Benjamin completely disregards.
What Melanie Benjamin fails to understand about the research for her main character is that it is already fiction. As one of the most public popular entertainment figures of the late 19th century, Warren was keenly aware of what was required to maintain the character of Mrs. Tom Thumb. In personal correspondence, signatures on carte de visites, and other writing that would at some point become part of the public record, Warren lived as Mrs. Tom Thumb. Barnum created the Tom Thumb and Mrs. Tom Thumb characters, and “biographical” information was widely distributed. Throughout history, this fiction information has consistently been confused with the biography of Lavinia Warren. And in this novel, Melanie Benjamin finds herself suckered by Barnum’s tall tales.
For the sake of argument, let’s give in to the historical fiction sympathizers who say that an author has every right to ignore the historical for the primacy of fiction. Benjamin’s novel is merely a remix of anything anyone ever wrote about Mrs. Tom Thumb. There is nothing new here except her introduction of the nickname “Vinnie.” Nowhere, in anything written about Lavinia Warren or Mrs. Tom Thumb, has either the woman or the character been referred to as “Vinnie.” Ever. It’s fair to say that Benjamin has the right to make up facts as an author of fiction, but it is galling to think of she appears at book clubs around the country and dupes her audience into believing she knows anything about the life of the real woman to whom she owes this concept of the entire novel. Instead of taking the time to find out about the real Lavinia Warren, Benjamin relies on the fictions and humbugs about Mrs. Tom Thumb. Like jazz, one has to understand the fundamentals before a proper improvisation can happen. Benjamin, if she had taken the time to discover the basics or question the motives behind the pieces she used as research, would have uncovered a dynamic, radical character in Lavinia Warren who constantly negotiated performance withing her personal life and is far more interesting than the spineless, confused, tagalong Vinnie she created.
Perhaps the most (or only) positive outcome of the popularity behind The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb exists in an affirmation that there is still a significant interest in the lives of women who performed as freaks or human oddities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately, additional fictions about the lives of real women far outweigh any serious, critical scholarship at this point. These women deserve to be recognized for their considerable contribution to popular culture, and have their work acknowledged as important additions to the discourse of history, feminism, and disability in America. I hope, as Benjamin blithely suggests, people who read the novel become interested enough in Lavinia Warren’s life to find out more about this remarkable woman and others like her instead of accepting uninspired, fictional regurgitations.
Enchanting, engaging, moving, and beautiful. These are just a few words which can amply describe The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb… and that was only by page 27!
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb instantly grabs 110% of your attention with vivid imagery, bright descriptions, emotional currents, and a strong plot without the usual fictional fluff. A coming of age story, depicting self-acceptance and growth; The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a traditional theme and yet far from it and much more magical. The story reads with depth and instantaneous character development.
Focusing on the character of Vinnie, the reader forgets that he/she was just introduced to the story and to her character; one with a strong voice and bold personality, coming alive before your eyes. Vinnie powerfully evokes a bond with the reader, thus resulting in a shared emotional up and down journey. From the first time she was called a “dwarf” to the death of her sister, Vinnie shares her joys and failures with the reader.
Melanie Benjamin’s language and text style is intelligent and skillfully written, yet easy and smooth enough that one keeps turning the pages without even noticing the clock minutes ticking by. The story never drags, even in parts which would in other novels. Basically, it flows like butter and dissolves into the bigger picture of developments and sequencing. It is rare to find a book with NO slow parts but The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb was genuinely contained and a constantly rotating, engaging, and well-developed novel. Never did I imagine I would tear up at a goodbye scene between a little person and a giantess. It isn’t even a scene I ever even considered! But guess who was blurry-eyed? My favorite chapter was depicting the death of Vinnie’s sister during childbirth. A highly pivotal point to the rest of the book, it evoked much emotion and changed the tone in a moving and satisfying way.
At times, Vinnie is egotistical and vain, putting on airs with society. This causes her brief lapses of realization but then she returns to forgetting her roots. Although this may anger some readers (and perhaps it is supposed to, as it is not the typical path of human self-advancement); it demonstrated that Vinnie is“real” and with faults, just like anyone else. This is best portrayed when she meets some “freaks” while working on a sideshow at Barnum’s circus and although she is considered a novelty herself; she is disgusted by the other “creatures”.
One of the few (and maybe only) sections I could have done without were the “intermissions”: a page of news clippings in between chapters which are obviously placed to help set the scene and setting of the Civil War era. However, I don’t feel it helped much in that sense, nor was it a must-have for the story to progress.
Melanie Benjamin remained quite historically accurate with her work despite some of the fictional matter used to keep the book moving. The chronology and sequencing was in-line with major events and thus, the book isn’t as annoyingly speculated as other historical fiction pieces. Benjamin read the unpublished autobiography of the real Mrs. Tom Thumb (which is a rather dry compilation and is more of a travelogue devoid of any emotion); so it would appear that Vinnie would be very proud of this novel depicting her life.
I would have liked the book to continue onward to Vinnie’s second marriage after the death of General Tom Thumb but I enjoyed the inside look at P.T. Barnum which debunked (based on facts) many of Vinnie’s career and life moments/choices. A combination of “Showboat”, the film “Big Fish”, and “Water for Elephants”; this novel should be the next big film (or at least, play).
3.5 rounded up. Even at over 400 pages it's a quick read.
The bride and groom are in the center and I assume that's P.T. Barnum standing behind them. The maid of honor is Vinnie's sister, Minnie who is even smaller than Vinnie. 2/10/1863 Tom Thumb weddings (using children) took place around the US to celebrate this wedding and they re-enacted it during their US and world-wide tours (even to taking the vows!)
So another woman of history I knew nothing about until I read a fiction of her life. Granted, the book itself is called Mrs. Tom Thumb but she propelled herself before the wedding and the life-long attachment to a man. (That man of course being P.T. Barnum.) Dealing with the Wild West, Confederates, pushy people and railroads would be bad enough but can you imagine needing help every time you needed to open a window or get a glass of water? No wonder her most treasured item is a stepstool!
I wonder if Vinnie was really so dry and humorless as Benjamin makes her out to be. When you look at Vinnie's face, I really do see a resemblance to Mary Lincoln! Maybe it was the weight, or the dark hair, or the grim face. I have no doubt that Charles Stratton (Tom Thumb) was the first childhood celebrity with all the psychological problems it came with.
Benjamin makes use of "intermissions" to insert news articles of the time and give a reader a sense of time passing.
Even though I had heard her stage name and seen her picture, I had no idea who Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump was. Author Melanie Benjamin uses historical records to give us a rather well written "fictionalized" autobiography of Vinnie (as she is known to family and friends). Her story can't be told without being intertwined with the very famous Phineas T. Barnum and an American public wanting to be entertained. Even though she was diminutive in stature (only 32 inches tall), Lavinia Bump wanted something so much more than what she could have as a small person in a small town in the middle of Massachusetts in the middle of the 1800s. She left home with one of those "traveling shows" which had cropped up during that time in American history, and as they say "the rest is history". She had an amazing life and hers is an amazing story to tell. I loved the way Melanie Benjamin intersperses little historical tidbits as reported in newspapers and magazines between the chapters. It gives the reader something to anchor Lavinia's story to.
What an amazing story about an amazing woman (little or not) her family tragedies, her hopes and dreams. Her relationship with her sister, her husband and her love for Barnum. What an amazing life she led.
This is a novel autobiography of Lavinia Bump, known as Vinnie, born as a normal child but never grew more than 32 inches tall. It covers her early life, her life as a showman, first on a paddlewheel on Middle American Rivers, then working for P.T. Barnum for many years. She married Charles Stratton, known as Tom Thumb, another short person and lived with him for over 20 years. She married him for business reasons and never really loved him.
"I simply felt driven to see to experience - to give of myself to those whose approval should have meant less than my own husband's but instead meant so much more...I simply realized I needed the warmth of an audience like a plant needs sun."
The couple traveled around the world giving shows for many high-ranking people. "That world that had beckoned to me for so long...I would conquer it by seeing every corner of it. I felt sorry for the women who had to content themselves with gazing at the globe while they dusted it, dutifully trapped in the houses of their husbands."
"It seemed to me that spent our entire married lives refusing him, he who asked so little of me. He died alone, in our bed...for I had never allowed love to join us there, and without it the two of us could not begin to fill up all the empty spaces between us."
She had several tragedies and many regrets in her life. The book makes you feel those. The author has used some of Vinnie's writings plus other historical references in constructing this fictional biography of Mrs Tom Thumb.
While I understand that this book is a historical NOVEL, I think Ms. Benjamin would have been better served to write a novel about a fictional character. It is obvious that there was very little actual historical information about Vinnie Bump. Therefore, Ms Benjamin basically had to repeat herself over and over and over. After the first hundred pages, I wanted to throw the book or burn it for kindling. There are only so many ways to convey that Vinnie was a self-absorbed person with no idea that her size was really her only reason for fame. Ms. Benjamin is an excellent writer but I felt as if she sort of painted herself into a corner. If you go to the bookstore and look at the appendix of the author's facts, you will get a quick read of the book without the repetition. Wish I had seen it! I do believe this book could have been saved. If the author had invented a character, she could have filled out the character's personality much better and the book could have been far more interesting! I appreciate that she was trying to remain true to the historical facts that she could find--that is important to me in historical fiction. However, when facts are scarce on an actual person, you must ask yourself if there is enough information to make the book readable OR if you are willing to invent enough material for the same reason. I believe that this was a good author with a bad subject! The only reason I didnt give it one star is that I reserve that for books that I simply could not finish. I finished this one, but wish I had my time and my money back.
For fans of "Alice I Have Been", author Melanie Benjamin's first novel, you are in for a real treat with her new novel, "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb". In my humble opinion Ms. Benjamin has shown a gift for choosing historical figures who have passed from the limelight and bringing their fascinating stories back to life in the enlightening and accessible form of the historical novel. I had never heard of Mercy Lavinia "Vinnie" Warren Bump, the future wife of Charles Stratton (General Tom Thumb), until I read this wonderfully informative story of her life as an entertainer/exhibit, and I found her tale to be powerfully uplifting although ultimately somewhat tragic. Ms. Benjamin did another fine job of focusing not just on the curious story but on strong characterizations equally well, and relating Vinnie's complex relationships with the famous characters P.T. Barnum and Charles Stratton provided a rich and satisfying tale which was as poignant as it was edifying. I give this novel highest marks, recommend it as a terrific read, and can't wait to see what further tales await us from the talented Melanie Benjamin!
This book was interesting only because of the protagonist. Had this same book been written in the same style and about a "normal" woman, it would've been terribly boring and slow.
Mrs. Tom Thumb's ("Vinnie" Warren Bump's) early life, life under PT Barnum's management, her marriage, and the very end of the book are the most interesting. There are too many slow, dragging places in this book. The story is told entirely through Vinnie's viewpoint, which would be okay, except the majority of it is in her head so there are lots of chunks with little to zero dialogue. I did appreciate the headlines and news clippings from the corresponding time period in between each chapter, just to show where in America history we are as Vinnie's story is taking place.
Unexpectedly, this is a love story. Not between her and Tom Thumb, because the readers are led to believe that is a marriage formed out of business and strict friendship. Vinnie's love for PT Barnum was actually a pleasant surprise. I never would have thought of this, but the author's notes in the back with how she drew that conclusion did help clarify her reasoning.
Vinnie Warren Bump was no more than 32" tall in her lifetime. She was a perfectly formed little lady, not a dwarf, and from a very well-respected New England family. Her younger sister was also very small, even moreso than Vinnie. In a time in America where people stayed confined to their farms, their towns, and had almost no glimpse of "oddities" or the outside world, PT Barnum the Businessman is making ridiculous amounts of money in showing off these things. To the modern reader, the things may not be so odd (although I'd argue that IF the same American Museum was around today, it would certainly be visited often).
Vinnie knows she is destined for bigger things than her family's farm, so she takes off on a Mississippi Riverboat in pre-Civil War America. She can sing, and she has the poise and manners of a lady, but the Riverboat and its audience are crass and rough. She is abused, threatened, and ridiculed. The Civil War breaks up the act, and Vinnie, longing for more (though not necessarily stardom) contacts PT Barnum.
Barnum is portrayed as a sharpminded businessman, a gentleman, but always seeing things through the dollar sign. America is torn by war, America has no "sweethearts", so Barnum creates them in Vinnie and Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton). He captivates everyone in the world, including the Royal Family and the Lincolns in the White House.
The book chronicles the travels and elegant lifestyle of "The Queen of Beauty" and "General Tom Thumb".
Vinnie as a protagonist was a little bit "Scarlett O'Hara" for me. A bit snooty, using a gracious lady exterior to cover any blemishes in her attitude.
It's not a bad story to pass time, although it's not a fast read. Definitely worth the read for the interesting points of view and the history.
This is a novelization about Mrs. Tom Thumb who stood 2 feet, 8 inches tall. The novel is told in the first person, Vinnie's (Mrs. TT) and just as the title says, like an autobiography.
I was completely charmed by this little two foot narrator even though she isn't perfect. She is strong, determined, prideful and ashamed both, arrogant, selfish, and yet also extremely loving. Throughout the novel, she does wrong and she does right, just like everyone else and her narrative is very honest.
Branded one of "nature's occasional mistakes" when it became realized that she was never grow past the height of a two year old, Vinnie refuses to let her parents coddle and protect her. She demands to go to school. This is the strong and determined Vinnie I admired so. She proves to the town that "little people" have the same abilities to think and learn as every one else and not only excels in school, but becomes a teacher.
She's got a desire to be the center of attention, however, and just settling for being a school teacher in a tiny town isn't satisfying Vinnie. Here's the pride and arrogance. She joins a showboat touring the Mississippi and has an unsavory "manager." This part of her life occurs right before the Civil war breaks out so there is some interesting historical stuff merged in here. She also makes a wonderful friend in a giant woman. This is the nice side of Vinnie. I was very touched.
From the showboat, she goes to P.T. Barnum and here her character starts to change.. and not necessarily for the better. She agrees to a publicity stunt of a marriage, gets her also tiny sister involved in show business (NOT for the right reasons), and there's a baby mishap I don't want to reveal. Here, Vinnie gets selfish. It's all about Vinnie.. except for her sister, Minnie, she doesn't give much thought to others.
But she really does love Minnie and for a while, Minnie somewhat steals the show. I actually cried at one point. Minnie has a sad story. I didn't know whether to call her brave or incredibly dumb, but it is very moving.
I used both the words "ashamed" and "arrogant." A strange combination? How can one be both? This is interesting.. Vinnie is very pleased with herself, sees herself as something really special. After all, she's had tea with the Queen. However, when faced with a troupe of dwarfs while traveling with the Barnum circus, Minnie looks down on them, considers herself above them. Is she really better than them or is she viewing them with shame? Is she afraid she is looking at herself?
"..grotesque, misshapen little people.. "
And later in the book, this made me think on the above further: In her husband's eyes one day, she sees something that she must admit to herself that she sees in her mirror,
"Hurt and determination, both: That's what it was. Hurt at the cruelties the world sometimes threw at us; determination not to let anyone notice...... Perhaps I had also recognized it in the eyes of those misshapen little women from the circus; perhaps I hadn't wanted to.."
So is Vinnie putting on an act? This really made me think about how many of us with disabilities try to cover up our discomfort, our hurt, with pride and arrogance..
There were many laugh out moments too. A scene with Mrs. Putnam was hilarious. Vinnie's wit really comes out at times. Also enjoyed her description of her husband toting around his little pistol on the train and her views on Mormon women. This review is already too long or I would quote it all.
A beautiful story about an amazing woman who defied all odds, who traveled the world, who touched lives, joined a circus, and so much more.
I recently watched The Greatest Showman and really enjoyed it so wanted to know more about PT Barnum and his cast of characters. I had this book in my TBR stack and it offered further insights into the period and people associated with PT Barnum. Although this was fiction a lot of authentic research went into the writing of this book. Mercy Lavinia 'Vinnie' Bump Stratton approached PT Barnum after a short and tumultuous stint on a show boat on the Mississippi. A short statured lady of strong will, Vinnie aspired to more than a quiet life on her parent's farm. Joining Barnum's troupe she became a celebrity and was courted by royalty and society. Marrying fellow Barnum star General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) she travelled the world and enjoyed enormous success. This book follows her life and career. Her character was resolute and I felt some sympathy for her husband and sister who she patronised. She was particularly cold to her husband and denied conjugal rights their whole married life. Despite this she wasn't a solely unsympathetic character. She wanted to achieve despite the outdated attitude to her status. The book is mostly enjoyable although at 453 pages I skimmed some overly descriptive parts without missing anything. It offers insights into historical treatment of people of colour, physical difference and attitudes to animals. I have read that 'Vinnie' went onto marry a Count or Prince so I hope to read more about her along with more about PT. Barnum. This is the second book I have read by Melanie Benjamin and you cannot fault her research or thorough writing of a piece of history. I will always read more by this author. A long and slow read but very enjoyable.
Although I don't usually enjoy speculative fictionalized biographies, this book was an exception. Melanie Benjamin takes the little we know about Mrs. Tom Thumb, Lavinia Stratton, gleaned from her actual autobiography and other ambiguous sources, and creates an interesting and believable character. Benjamin also gives us an interesting and well-written story and evokes a fascinating time period.
I enjoyed this more than Alice I Have Been, and it's always nice to see a writer exceeding previous works. I'll look forward to Benjamin's next book.
This was a really interesting piece of historical fiction with an arresting first person narrative that made it seamlessly seem like a biography. It points at the limitations of women in the 19th Century ---- and paints a ghastly picture of how narrow they were for people who who, like Vinnie Stratton, were seen as "other" or "different."
PT Barnum is painted as a smart man with a lot of agency; but also with a heart. The dialogue between Vinnie and Barnum is when the pages really strike alive.
A tender look at an outstanding woman leading a tragic but memorable life on the world stage.
This was a very good book. It is written as fiction based on the truth. I wasn't even certain Tom Thomb was a real person let alone Mercy Lavinia "Vinnie" Warren Bump, later known as Mrs. Tom Thumb. It was also fascinating to learn about PT Barnum who on some level was Vinnie's true soul mate. As the author wrote in the back of the book "I believe that every novel is either a mystery, a tragedy or a love story - some are all three - and it became clear to me that this is a love story. An unusual love story; an affair of the mind rather than the body."