Diminutive Mercy Lavinia Bump, just 32 inches tall, has never been content with her life as a girl in the country. Even when she’s appointed a teacher despite her size, she longs for more. So when her “cousin” arrives offering to put her on display for her singing talents – in reality to exhibit her in a circus – she actually jumps at the chance to escape and see the world. Little does she expect the fame and devastation that will come of her choices when she meets P.T. Barnum and becomes one of the most famous “little people” in the world.
I read a book designed for younger readers about Tom Thumb earlier this year and ever since then I’ve been fascinated by these people, who were clearly exploited but who also seem to have had a role in their own exploitation. After hearing boatloads of praise for Melanie Benjamin after Alice I Have Been, a book I still unfortunately haven’t read, I knew that this was one I really needed to get to. I’m very glad that it lived up to my high hopes and provided the story of a woman who simultaneously takes advantage of her size to get what she wants even as she hates that she is reduced to it; a fascinating practical person who sees the world through very clear eyes, most of the time.
After all, Vinnie, as she’s known to her friends, seems to have very distinctly made her own choices in real life, as she does in this book, and they were at least partly inspired by her desire to see more of the world. She may not have expected to be as exploited as she was, but here she is given a clear opportunity to go home and live out her life, probably as a childless spinster. Is it any surprise that she does take the chance, even if it means exploitation? It’s a fascinating thought process.
I have to admit that I didn’t like Vinnie throughout the entire book. At times, I think she actually makes the same mistake looking at others as she does when others look at her. She looks at her husband and doesn’t see that he’s a person, too; instead she measures his faults and pushes him aside. When she looks at her sister, she can’t see anything but her baby sister, smaller even than she is, even though Minnie is probably one of the strongest characters in the book. Vinnie is a stubborn woman and even as she frustrated me, I appreciated the roundedness of her character, and the fact that she really doesn’t let her size stop her from achieving her dreams.
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is the perfect choice for those who enjoy historical fiction, particularly about the complicated world of circus-style shows in the nineteenth century, and is certainly recommended by me. I look forward to reading Benjamin’s first book and any others she has planned.
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