BookBrowse Reviews The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

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The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

A Novel

by Melanie Benjamin

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2011, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2012, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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A fascinating work of historical fiction about a tiny woman who was larger than life

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb touches on many topics - P.T. Barnum's circus, the American Civil War, the challenges of physical limitations, fame - but fundamentally it is one woman's story. It is easy to forget that the protagonist, Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump (aka Vinnie), stands only 32 inches tall because her words and actions are so bold. She narrates her autobiography in a commanding, calm tone, and her voice is both distinct and unique to the period, relying on particular quips and turns of phrase to anchor the reader in the nineteenth century.

Melanie Benjamin confronts Vinnie's discomfort with being showcased for her physical limitations in a way that allows readers to witness the challenge of being different, not simply being short. Vinnie's frustration will speak to anyone who has at one time felt singled out due to their appearance, height, weight, race, gender, orientation, or beliefs - and who has not, at one point, felt this way? Vinnie is an individual worthy of empathy, for her gumption and her desire to turn her handicap into a valuable quality is admirable.

The first few chapters, wherein Vinnie is a small child on a New England farm, are slow and far from the "barnstorming" adventure that the book jacket promises. Once she boards the Mississippi showboat, however, things kick off and don't stop. The book does not lurch into the melodrama of the "swashbuckler" or "bodice-ripper" variety - Miss Vinnie is far too sensible for that - but the complexities and difficulties of Vinnie's fame and relationships make for a compelling read.

Along with Vinnie, the other characters in Benjamin's novel have the resilience and ambition that are reminiscent of figures in works by Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and I reacted to them as I do to people I know in my own life: they delighted me, perplexed me, sometimes they annoyed me. I neither adored nor hated any of the characters, but appreciated them for their dignity and hardworking habits.

Strangely enough, the appearance of actual historical documents is the most artificial addition to the story. Most chapters are bookended by real nineteenth century news clippings; some of these excerpts directly relate to Vinnie's story, but others not so much. This additional, tangential information is distracting and unnecessary considering Benjamin's ability to gently weave historical facts, figures, and names directly into the narrative.

Benjamin's talent as a writer of historical fiction shines as she unravels Vinnie's autobiography, for there are few, if any, moments that stand out as unrealistic or fictionalized. The plot appears to be very loyal to the reality of Vinnie's life, and it is clear that Benjamin has found a story that is rare and needs few additions to dazzle readers. Her story will be enjoyed by readers who relish strong female leads and by those who like following the vacillating emotions of characters; I'll be shelving my copy near novels like Kathryn Stockett's The Help and Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife. Discovering Vinnie Warren Bump will lead readers to wonder why they have not heard of this curious, outlandish life before. If the goal of historical fiction is to imagine lost or forgotten parts of the past, then The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb wildly succeeds.

Additional Info
In the video below, Melanie Benjamin talks with interviewer Kathy Patrick about her research for The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and discusses the incredible life of Vinnie Bump.

This review was originally published in September 2011, and has been updated for the April 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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Beyond the Book:
  Mercy Lavinia

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