The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
(Delacorte Press, 2011, 424 pages)
I enjoyed this fictionalized account of Mrs. Tom Thumb, otherwise known as Lavinia (“Vinnie”) Warren Stratton. Born in the mid-19th century, Vinnie was most definitely viewed as “special.” She reached her full height of 32 inches around the age of 2 and would be understood today as having proportional dwarfism. At a little over two feet tall Vinnie’s view of the world was obviously different from the rest of her family – excluding her younger sister, Minnie, who was born with the same condition (though she was smaller than Vinnie). Vinnie didn’t want her size to limit her, however, and so when she was offered the chance to tour the United States as a unique act she jumped at the chance. As she traveled with a man known as Colonel Wood and his steamboat of other acts Vinnie was portrayed as a curiosity. She quickly made the decision to humanize herself by refusing to simply stand and be gawked at; she was a performer and she awed her audiences. Colonel Wood was not the best man to be working for and it was “fortunate” for Vinnie that the beginnings of the Civil War brought an end to her time with him.
Vinnie’s return home made it clear to her that she would never be content living out the rest of her days with her parents and sister. She reached out to P. T. Barnum and became one of his top performers. The two formed a fast bond and were able to talk to one another in a way no one else could. It was under his tutelage that Vinnie was introduced to General Tom Thumb (one of Barnum’s first attractions) and the two soon wed. The rest of the novel recounts Vinnie’s life as she and her husband were admired and traveled the globe. We also get a look at the struggles Vinnie and her husband faced as they tried to navigate a world that wasn’t built with them in mind and as the changing nation found General and Mrs. Tom Thumb to be less exciting than they once were.
The amount of research Benjamin did for this book is evident as you read. I was impressed with the detail and the cultural references sprinkled throughout the text. I also really appreciated the detailed Afterword that explains how the author decided to write this fictionalized account of Vinnie’s life and where she gathered much of her information. I was able to read the book quickly and I was definitely engaged in the story. It had me eager to learn more about Vinnie and P. T. Barnum. The time in which they thrived was a unique time in American history when the nation was coming into its own while in the midst of tragic events like the Trail of Tears and the Civil War. If you like historical fiction, fictionalized biographies, have an interest in 19th/20th century performers, and/or just appreciate a good story, I think you’ll enjoy The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.