This book was sent to me by the wonderful group of people over at Random House Publishing Group (primarily Liz who I talked to) and I wanted to thank them first and foremost for sending me one of my new favorite works in historical-fiction.
Just thinking about writing this blog, I was turning over in my head all the times I heard “his unimaginable girth” about the ginormous horse freak-show at the North Carolina State Fair. At the time, I was in ninth grade, donning a large sweatshirt of my high school boyfriends stained variety, and laughing at the way the man, in his top hat and mustache was saying “girth” repeatedly. To be honest, I had no idea what “girth” was and assumed it was some sort of gut, or upper thigh fat. (Can you see how my mind has always been wrapped around the thickness of various thighs?) I was just amazed at this man’s sale tactics. How he was taking people’s dollars and shoving them into his musty, lint-ridden pocket and smirking to himself. I could almost see him counting the bills at the end of the night, licking each finger before he turned another dollar corner over in his haste. I never fell for the bearded lady, or the half-girl, half-snake exhibits. I guess my father had forewarned me about the State Fair Sharks. I did partake in all of the food oddities; fried oreo, fried twinkie, pickle dipped in koolaid, frozen cheese cake dipped in chocolate, gyros, turkey legs. This list could honestly go on forever. I think the one thing I never heard being yelled at me from the tiny yellow and red tents was to see a “little woman.” Sure, there were tiny horse exhibits, and thumb-sized men, but no one marvels any longer about the “vertically challenged.” At least I think that’s the politically correct way of saying it.
Then, all of a sudden, Melanie Benjamin has concocted a new book on the real woman, Mrs. Tom Thumb. Melanie Benjamin also wrote Alice I have Been about the real Alice in Wonderland and her relationship to Lewis Carrol. This book had me completely convinced that Lewis Carrol is actually this pervert who has changed his name and followed little girls around for the entirety of his life. Of course, now, I know not to believe that because these are both works of historical fiction and can’t be taken exactly literally. Although the facts are there for The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Benjamin definitely still took liberties with her own fluffing-up of the true story.
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is the story of Mercy Lavinia “Vinne” Warren Bump Stratton who became famous by being a part of P.T. Barnum’s General Tom Thumb Troupe and also by marrying General Tom Thumb himself, the most famous little person at the time. And by famous, I mean, he was made a general by the Queen of England. This is a feat because at the time (Civil War era) traveling was almost unheard of, if you weren’t a government official, or very famous musician. Yet, at the ripe age of seven, Tom Thumb was meeting the Queen and being almost bitten by her little dog. As you can tell, it’s quite a story.
Vinnie is a feminist of her time, completely in charge of herself for the most part, and such a fascinating little woman. She spends most of her life traveling and entertaining, while at the same time taking care of her little sister (also miniature) Minnie and marrying a husband she didn’t necessarily care for. I’m not too sure about this part, I think Benjamin took liberties here. Benjamin insinuates Vinnie was always in love with Barnum and never had any “love” feelings for her husband and that in fact, she ended up a virgin for most, if not all of her life. This was due to her husband’s instant success when he was just five years old, making him very innocent and almost always in someone else’s care and control.
I’m giving too much away, especially if I want you to read this book. So, forget what you just read, and check out these photos. I think it’s fascinating that the man whose name is on Animal Crackers all over the world became famous in part because of these tiny people. Now, when we see tiny people, we think, “Oh, look at that little woman,” but I’m not sure many people would stare or gawk.
I think that’s what I like most about Vinnie. She always expected to be treated like the most normal woman in the finest attire. Not only would she be donned in jewels, atop her husband’s yacht, but she would expect you to see her as not just a lifesize barbie, but a real size human being. Never wanting people to touch her, or squeeze her like a child, or a stuffed doll. (An American Girl Doll, obviously).
I think this book was an excellent read. The main character was completely compelling, her voice is spot on for a feminist reader (even when she is harsh, or uncharacteristically cold to those around her, especially Charles) and her adoration for her sister and PT Barnum himself is anything you’d want in a friend. I think Charles Stratton gets the short-end of the stick on this one, being portrayed like one of the Lollipop Boys from Wizard of Oz, but what’s the harm in wanting to stay young forever? It worked for Peter Pan, right?
I totally, completely recommend this book. The cover is beautiful, the pages are buffed to different sizes, with rough edging (which I love in a book because it reminds me of old timey printing, I only have a few thanks to my mother, but they’re wonderful) and the inside holds a compelling story. It’s a book of a witty, fully-formed class of small characters. If you have the time, Vinnie, Minnie, Charles and Phineas are all worth a second glance.
Other Blogs, Articles and Reviews on this book, just in case my review wasn’t too your fancy:
- I particularly like this review because it talks about the weaving of history throughout the novel.
- This is Benjamin on my favorite NPR show, the Diane Rehm Show.
- Total Spoiler…
- Author Interview
- The Story Behind the Book
Here is a cut out (edit) of this blog, I had this at the beginning and realized this isn’t where the story starts, but still wanted to share a bit:
- I’m totally guilty of this, as probably most of you are too, but I’m obsessed with most TLC shows including Little People, Big World. Last season, I was so hoping we’d find out if she was able to have children. I also watch all the shows where children are put into pageants by their mother’s, who always had sick dreams of wearing crowns and becoming real-life Disney Princesses. Plus, put a woman in a wedding dress and I’m watching that show. It’s just part of my fascination with the life of women, I guess? I mean, I consider myself a feminist, but I get so sucked into these shows about the fantasies of women, or the oddities in life that I can’t help but watch every season.I think a lot of people are actually into these types of shows because even The Atlantic is writing about them in their entertainment section. It is truly a world of curiosities. I was thinking about this today because I was watching, River Monsters, yes, I can watch man shows and drink beers just as well as watch shows about wedding dresses. And the host dude, graying hair, around fifty, was talking about all the different types of stingrays he’d seen. The particular fresh water stingray that was on the show was covered in a turtle-like pattern and very hard to say from the muddy water. And then, I’m sitting there, this is the poet in me, thinking about all different types of human. Earlier, when my father and I went for our morning swim, an older woman walked out of the breezeway with the legs of a grass hopper. They were so thin and then I was thinking about my fat, rubbing together thighs and how I was ever supposed to get out of this brick shit house body that my grandmother gave me. I don’t really want out, I was just thinking it, and then thinking about body types and then thinking about the worlds of sizes that humans come in and all our freckles, and birth marks and oddities. And when you really think about all of those overwhelming things, you realize a little person really isn’t that odd at all.
I hope you all got to spend Friday with someone special in your family, or with a damn good book, like me. : )