Review: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Genre: general fiction, historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 424 (hardcover edition)
Published:  July 2011
Source: won in giveaway from GoodReads
Rating: 4/5

Though Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton, better remembered as "Lavinia/Vinnie Warren" or "Mrs. Tom Thumb", was a diminutive woman, she had a huge personality and dreams that could not be contained in her thirty-two inches of height. Though not always likable or even particularly kind, Vinnie refused to be defined by her height ("My size may have been the first thing people noticed about me but never, I vowed at that moment, would it be the last.") With far more determination and strength-of-will than many believed her capable of, Mrs. Tom Thumb defied society's expectations and rules in a time of rigidity and routine in order to live the life she wanted. Melanie Benjamin's version of a real-life woman is captivating and hard to put down; I was never bored with Vinnie or her life back in the 1800s. In fact, when I reached the last page (40 years before the titular character's death) I wanted more about this interesting performer.

Lavinia Warren was a complicated woman. By turns inspiring, infuriating and confusing, Vinnie never fails to command attention on the page. One thing you could never call this strong, ferocious woman is boring (though apparently her real notes for an autobiography were quite dry). In a time when women were either married or a burden on their families, Vinnie chased her dream down the wild Mississippi River before the outbreak of the Civil War. Benjamin does a fine job of balancing Vinnie's desires for freedom with the traditional beliefs and ideas that tie her to home; the bond between Vinnie and her sister Minnie is particularly well-developed and one of the more compelling relationships of the novel. Vinnie's upbringing in rural Massachusetts is difficult and casts the girl in a sympathetic light from the beginning; between the not-so-hidden shame of her family and the pressure to conform to society's whims, Vinnie emerges as a forward-thinking and acting young woman. I wish I could say I liked Vinnie all the time; by the latter part of the novel (probably in the last one hundred pages) Vinnie's hard edges and unforgiving attitude lost some of the glow her earlier self had gained. It seems the more Vinnie traveled, the more she lost herself near the end. Her disdainful attitude and high opinion of herself took her from my favorite character in the novel (the first 300 pages) to my third favorite, after Minnie and P.T. Barnum. She's a complex woman, certainly. It seemed interesting to me that Vinnie was so determined to live her own life on HER terms, but she regards any other "dwarf person" almost as children (her sister, her husband Charles, Commander Nutt, etc.) almost as if Vinnie herself has forgotten she is just the same.

On the note of the side players, a few really stood out from the multitude in Vinnie's life. Sylvia, a performer from Vinnie's earliest days, serves as a cautionary tale for Ms. Warren. She demonstrates that life in showbiz is not all it's cracked up to be. Minnie, her younger sister from back home, is a nice contrast to Vinnie's steadily increasing ego. Kinder, simpler and much less jaded than her sibling, Minnie simply stole the show whenever she appeared. The relationship between Minnie and her husband was also one of the few genuinely caring relationships presented in the novel. Every other relationship was shown as troubled or unhappy: even Vinnie's eventual marriage to the famous General Tom Thumb would be devoid of genuine love or affection. P.T. Barnum, the infamous American huckster was an important figure in the real Vinnie's life and no less so here in the fictionalized tale.  I really enjoyed the dynamic Benjamin created between Barnum and Vinnie: he was the only character who could/would challenge her intelligence and he was the only nonfamily she loved. Their whole relationship was one of intellectual soulmates; each seemed to find in the other a kindred spirit of the mind found nowhere else on their travels. Vinnie even states of the circus entrepreneur: "[It was] as if he were the sharpening stone and I the edge of the knife." An affair of the brain, if you will, is what I would call the chemistry and feeling between the two. There's certainly more pop with Barnum and Vinnie than with Vinnie and her actual husband Charles. The main antagonist, Colonel Wood, seems largely a cat without claws, though he does liven up the segments of the novel which take place up and down the river.

The style of the novel is fairly simple and very easy to read. Told in a direct tone, with Vinnie occasionally breaking the fourth wall to address the reader directly (".... Reader ..."), The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb covers the most salient and interesting exploits of Vinnie's long-lived life. Interspersed with this fictional tale of a real-life woman, are newspaper "notices" such as the ones Vinnie would collect about herself. These snippets of news and notes adds an air of atmosphere to the novel that the narrative itself lacks. My complaints are small: I wished the end had been closer to Vinnie's real end - 40 years uncovered seems like quite a bit missed. I also noticed a few "key" phrases that were repeated a bit too often ( variations along the lines of: "tiny/small/delicate/manicured/hands") and disrupted my reading flow. I also wish Charles had been a more rounded character, rather than being presented as just a simple imitator with no real opinions of his own. He was the character I felt for the most - his rough and uncaring treatment from his wife was one of my least favorite aspects of Vinnie. This is an easily readable, avidly interesting novel that manages to remain (mostly) historically accurate without sacrificing interest, humor or wit. Melanie Benjamin is a clearly gifted storyteller and writer: there is absolutely no denying her Vinnie was alive and almost tangible, even if not wholly likable.


  1. Hard to believe this was a real person, but your review let us have a glimpse into her astounding life. Thanks for sharing this; truthfully I don't know if I will read it, but I did enjoy your reporting of it. :) Rae

  2. Wow! Great review! This person reminds me of someone in my neighborhood. Thank you for sharing; I enjoyed reading the entire post.

    P.S. You now haven a new follower.

  3. Hello, Jessie! I found you--and this review--on Book Blogs, and I must say, you convinced me to add this book to my to-read shelf on goodreads! I love a good account of a real person's life, even if it technically falls into the category of "Fiction" rather than "Biography," so I think I'll give it a shot.
    The Beauty of Eclecticism

  4. I hope you like it, JCNL! It's not the best book I've ever read but it's more than worth reading!

    And thanks, Nancy! I appreciate the love so much! Bloggers really have the best community :)


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