It is not often that the word “entrancing” can be applied to a historical novel, but there is no other way to describe Chicago author Melanie Benjamin’s latest, “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.”
Benjamin has taken known facts of a real-life celebrity from nineteenth-century America and crafted for her not only a credible inner life but, more important, a real human heart reaching across decades to touch us in the twenty-first century.
Readers of period history are a demanding lot, notorious sticklers for historical accuracy. But novels that meet that fundamental requirement but do not successfully remind us that people are still people, in any age—their own hearts accessible to us—are nothing more than costume dramas. There is no such problem with Benjamin’s thoroughly researched work.
It is no easy task to put a reader in the tiny shoes of a nineteenth-century woman who was only thirty-two inches high, but Benjamin does it, and deftly so. In the process, we, too, “grow,” in appreciation of her extraordinary courage. Born a dwarf into an old New England family whose members are of normal size, except for, remarkably, a younger sister even smaller than she, Lavinia (Warren) Bump could have hidden indefinitely behind her mother’s skirts; certainly her self-conscious father would have preferred it over the inordinate attention she drew to his family.
Yet early on, “Vinnie” determined (in contrast to her younger sister), “Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define IT.”
Moreover, she recounts her reaction to revisiting a tall maple tree where she and her siblings had carved their names and marked their heights; the others’ heights had increased over the years, while hers had remained the same, grown over and obscured even by low-lying weeds.
She urgently tore away the weeds, until her hands were stained green, because “I saw how easily I could be forgotten, compared to my brothers and sister, compared to everyone else…. I did not want to be forgotten. More than that, I wanted, desperately… to be REMEMBERED.”
First, she was employed as a primary teacher, smaller than her shortest student. Then taking stock of her own gift for performance, she took the leap of contracting with a river-borne show traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Then escaping both exploitation and danger on the river, instead of retreating she found a performance home with the greatest American showman of all time, Phineas T. Barnum.
In the midst of a nation torn by civil war and desperate for distraction, she achieves fame side by side with Barnum’s internationally prominent attraction, Charles Stratton, known to the word as “General” Tom Thumb. We witness Barnum and his entertainers struggle with the realities of self-promotion and a high-profile public life while attempting to sustain normal friendships and family relationships.
Benjamin parts the curtain on both Barnum and on the money-conscious post-Civil War “Gilded Age,” as historic figures like U.S. Grant, Abraham and Mary Lincoln, the Astors and the Vanderbilts make their way across the stage. Through it all, “Vinnie” strives to achieve a balanced life, experiences heart-rending tragedy and finds her true love in an unexpected place.
For most of her life, Vinnie had thought her greatest challenge was in confronting a world much bigger than she was, but “How foolish I was! For it wasn’t kangaroos or snakes or typhoons or runaway horses that I needed to fear. It was nothing nearly so dramatic as all that.
“No, it was simply love, the desire to live a normal life, like any woman. This was what I myself did not have the courage to face.” Yet, courage she has, and it is a wonderful surprise to find it in such a small package.
Perhaps as a New Englander, and one so diminutive at that, she and author alike must be forgiven a certain “Dixiephobia”: Anyone must be forgiven a sense of terror in encountering white-shrouded night riders of the Ku Klux Klan on a road in Reconstruction Alabama, but, really, nothing good happens to this girl anytime the South is involved.
Also, the author’s first glimpse of pre-war U.S. Grant is flawed: he was neither short nor dark-eyed, but of average height and blue-eyed; also, it seems unlikely he would have been expressing such strong anti-slavery sentiments yet, when his own wife, Julia Dent, had but recently owned slaves.
But an author must be forgiven immersion in her character’s own point of view, and these are but small flaws in the porcelain of this masterful work of art. (Martin Northway)
“The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb”
By Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte Press, 440 pages, $25