Thursday 1 June 2017

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin 
      One of the things I like about reading novels is that it puts you into the times, situations, and even bodies of people whose lives are entirely different from my own.   This is especially true of the next book I read.
       It is the fictionalized autobiography of Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, someone you no doubt have never heard of.  She lived in the mid 1800's and was a very well known celebrity of the time.  Her remarkable life began on a Massachusetts farm to modest farm family.  
      Despite this humble beginning, she became a celebrity traveling around the world and hobnobbing with Queen Victoria, President Lincoln, and the wealthy social elites of America. It was her genes that made her famous.  At birth she seemed normal enough, tipping the scales at 6 pounds, but her parents soon began to worry, at the age of ten she weighed only 20 pounds and she was only 24 inches tall. As an adult she was perfectly proportioned although she was only 32 inches in height and weighed 29 pounds.  The title of this book is The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin.  
      Despite her tiny size, Lavinia attended the local rural school with her brothers and did so well academically that when her education was completed she was offered a teaching job for the primary grades, which she accepted.  Although she was quite a serious teacher and did a good job, her life felt empty and she yearned for something more. 
       Lavinia had a younger sister Minnie, who was also a miniature, in fact, a bit smaller. Minnie was very shy, and Lavinia, who was more worldly, sought throughout her life to protect Minnie from the outside world. 
       When a film-flam man, claiming to be a distant cousin, appeared at her parents' home and offered Lavinia a job as an entertainer traveling through the South on his steamboat, she jumped at the chance to escape the farm. She soon discovered however she was little more than a freak in his traveling freak show, but she got to like the  other "oddities" in the cast and fought to maintain her dignity, despite her coarse boss and his ways. 
       From the "Giant Lady", a co-worker, she learned about P.T. Barnum, and how he treated his cast of performers with dignity, and she dreamed of someday working for him as a performing singer. The Civil War soon put an end to her steamboat job and she returned to her parent's farm for two years.  She yearned to be out in the world again and secretly wrote a letter to Barnum with her press clippings and photos enclosed. 
       Her appeal worked and she was summoned to New York where Barnum introduced her to the world as Miss Lavinia Warren, dropping her unfortunate last name of Bump.  Barnum made her a nationwide sensation, and she reveled in her newly found fame and fortune.  She was introduced to Charles Stratton, Barnum's other world famous miniature, whose stage name was Tom Thumb.  He became infatuated with Lavinia. 
        Showman Barnum suggested that she should think about marrying Charles, but Lavinia, who wasn't in love with him and was very independent, wasn't at all interested.  Barnum used pressure on Lavinia, and she eventually relented, keeping her lack of love a secret from Charles.  Their wedding was a huge social event and despite Lavinia's initial objections, Minnie was her bridesmaid.  Lavinia, knowing Minnie's shyness, had kept Minnie a secret from Barnum. Barnum, of course, soon had Minnie join his troupe, touring with Tom Thumb and Lavinia.  
        Lavinia always feared pregnancy because she had been born a normal sized baby and knew a pregnancy with a normal size fetus would cause her death. As a result she and Charles lived a sexless marriage.  This fact however did not deter Barnum, who advertised that Lavinia had given birth and then secretly got orphaned newborns to act as their baby in the show.  Minnie who was was part of  the act was motherly, and always fell in love with these "stand in" babies and was  then always heartbroken when they were replaced.
         Minnie was soon married to a small, but not miniature, man.  She had always sought motherhood and happily, soon became pregnant, much to Lavinia's horror. As Lavinia knew, the fetus was of normal size, but Minnie refused to have it aborted. As a result, both Minnie and the infant died in childbirth, which filled Lavinia with guilt because she blamed herself and Barnum for taking Minnie out of her parent's home and into the spotlights.  
         Wealth made Lavinia's life much easier, but still, her diminutive size created  everyday problems, like having to take a small pair of steps with her so she could get up on chairs and beds.  She struggled with the height and bulkiness of doorknobs which proved to be difficult objects for her tiny hands. Imagine their extreme frustration and terror as she and Charles found themselves trapped in a sixth floor bedroom in a burning hotel. 
         Of course fame is fleeting and life changed for Lavinia and Charles after their top billing declined.  They made adjustments as hard times came into their lives.  Charles declined after the fire, and died shortly thereafter, but Lavinia lived on to remarry another miniature and toured until her death in 1919. 
         It's hard to imagine what life must have been like for someone 32 inches tall in a world made for those twice her height, the furniture, the buildings, the stares of everyone who saw her.  She successfully adjusted to her reality, and used it to her advantage.  Melanie Benjamin did an admirable job of writing this believable novel from Lavinia's low elevation point of view. 
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