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Review: Tom Thumb, George Sullivan

This is the remarkable true story of General Tom Thumb, in actuality Charles Sherwood Stratton, a small man who became one of P.T. Barnum’s most successful actors and exhibits.  Stratton, an average sized baby, virtually stopped growing when he was six months old to become one of the smallest men in the world.  Barnum discovered him at the age of only six, but put his age up so he’d look even tinier.  Tom traveled the world, married a beautiful fellow tiny lady, and became a world sensation.  It’s a shame that he’s been forgotten, as this tiny man’s fame in his day was only matched by modern celebrities.

This was a great book; it’s designed for younger audiences and is a fantastic non-fiction introduction to the world of the early circus.  To some extent, Tom Thumb was exploited, but he was made very rich in the process, and as the author says, genuinely enjoyed acting parts for most of his life.  When he became an adult, he seized upon traditional wealthy male pursuits like yachting, which his fame allowed him to do.  He even managed to marry fellow dwarf Lavinia, who outlived him and achieved some fame of her own. The book really made me question how exploited Tom was; he was a small man, but it appeared to be his choice to continue touring or to take his wife touring, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy acting. He was pushed into it as a child but it was his choice to continue. As for his wife, she had a normal childhood and chose the career which exploited herself. Clearly gawking at little people is wrong, but Tom and Lavinia thought of themselves as performers and lived the high life due to their careers.

A few highlights of the book; number one were the pictures, which were plenty.  It was fascinating to look at Tom in his various guises and see real life evidence that he actually existed.  The pictures really put the narrative in perspective.  The author also included newspaper clippings and photos of related acts and people, so I was never left wondering about what something looked like.

I also really loved Tom’s trips around the world.  Barnum’s marketing talents in an age before marketing became a proper profession were simply amazing.  He got Tom, who was at first unknown in Europe, in front of kings and queens the world over by the end.  He became so famous that they actually asked to see him and his carriage was mobbed in all corners of the globe.  That’s celebrity for you, and Tom had it in spades.

Naturally, I also loved the historical picture of the time that the author depicted.  Things like Tom’s terrifying railroad journey to California because of Native Americans, the fact that Barnum collected curiosities and put them in something he called a museum, the elaborate fanfare of Tom’s wedding, all put his story into perspective beautifully and gave me an amazing mental map of the time period.  Tom’s dwarfism was likely caused by the fact that his paternal and maternal grandmothers were twins; if so, it’s possible that he could have grown to a normal height today, which made me sad for him.

This was a wonderful book about a person who doesn’t get enough attention these days; I’d never heard of Tom Thumb until I read this book, but now I’m glad I have.  Tom Thumb is recommended for older and younger readers alike.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review via Netgalley.

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