At just about two-and-a-half-feet tall, Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton nevertheless seemed, in her career as a performer, larger than life. Discovered by P.T. Barnum after she had left home at 17 to entertain on a riverboat, "Vinnie" spent the rest of her years in the public eye. While the basic outline of her life is well known, her motivations and emotions have remained a mystery since her death in 1919. But in THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, author Melanie Benjamin explores Vinnie's personal life in a fictional examination of this compelling historical figure.
"For years Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thumb were like royalty...their work and personal lives front-page news. But when tragedy struck, neither was able to fully recover."
The descendant of Mayflower passengers, Vinnie was raised in a traditional, quiet New England family. Thought to have had a pituitary disorder that caused a form of proportionate dwarfism, she and her young sister, Huldah (known as Minnie), were the only little people in their family. Though she worked as a school teacher, young Vinnie longed to see the world and to overcome the challenges of her size. When a showman named Colonel Wood arrives, claiming to be a cousin with connections to popular celebrities and performers, Vinnie leaves with him hoping for adventure and fame.
But Wood turns out to operate a sleazy river boat where he displays Vinnie and others for leering audiences. She travels with Wood's show for years until the outbreak of the Civil War gives her the opportunity to escape her contract and his violent advances. Upon arriving home, though, Vinnie finds she misses the spotlight and the independence a life of performance affords her. So she sends a letter to the famous (or, some said, infamous) P.T. Barnum, hoping for a spot in his more reputable "museum."
Barnum eventually seeks Vinnie out, and what results is a professional, intellectual and emotional meeting of the minds. In Benjamin's rendition, Vinnie was a shrewd businesswoman allowing herself to be marketed to the masses to make Barnum rich while providing herself the life she had always dreamed about. Even her marriage to famous dwarf Charles Stratton, known as General Tom Thumb, was a purely professional arrangement. Vinnie was distant but kind to Stratton and over-protective of Minnie, who, despite her best efforts to dissuade her from doing so, went into show business as well. Together the Strattons, along with Minnie and her husband, traveled the world performing for rapt audiences and even dignitaries and royalty. For years Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thumb were like royalty themselves, their work and personal lives front-page news. But when tragedy struck, neither was able to fully recover.
Despite the famous marriage and astonishing career, Benjamin's novel focuses on the relationship between Barnum and Vinnie. In this way, in addition to exploring themes like disability, difference and celebrity, she artfully avoids asserting that Barnum exploited his star. Still, exploitation is an unavoidable topic when thinking about the traveling shows Vinnie and her comrades were a part of, which were often their only chances at a career or financial security. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB raises many intriguing questions but provides readers with no easy answers. And Vinnie's public confidence and bravado cannot mask her fears and insecurities.
Clever and genteel, like one would imagine a conversation with Lavinia Stratton would be, Benjamin's book is dramatic but slow-paced, interesting and old-fashioned, and at once a look at both a transitional moment in American history and a singular American story. This is a lovely novel, ambitious in its attempt to illuminate the life of a fascinating woman.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 26, 2011