Review: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Don't be deceived. There is nothing miniature or cute about this story.

Melanie Benjamin is doing something that is a little different. She is writing historical novels in the first person, the life stories of historical figures as she imagines them. I would quibble with this, rather preferring Guy Gavriel Kay's approach of changing all names in his historical novels, but in Benjamin's books, the actual identity of the person is really the point. In this case, we are looking at the life of Lavinia Bump, the midget wife of the even more famous midget General Tom Thumb, who was the cornerstone of the career of the legendary P.T. Barnum.

I picked up this book because the title pulled me in, and I looked harder because I am currently writing a novel with a protagonist named Lavinia, also in the first person. After reading a chapter or two I plunked down my cash. Why? Because the voice of Lavinia sings. She is a feisty non-conformist, both naive and calculating, determined to break out of the confines imposed on her by her sex and her size. And break out she does, horrifying her family by leaving the protection of her genteel home and taking up a life of performing and traveling. Her naivete is rapidly left behind, as she encounters the harsh realities of exploitation, sexism, and prejudice. But she refuses to be broken and finds a way to surmount the challenges of her environment, although she herself is not entirely exempt from pettiness and prejudice.

Benjamin does a good job of recreating the late 19th century, with its prejudices and wars and rapid changes. She details the findings of her research, the liberties she took, and why, in an Author's Note at the end of the book, something I appreciated very much. She also does a good job in presenting the various characters sympathetically and giving them distinctive voices and viewpoints.

I enjoyed this book. It should appeal to almost anyone who reads historical fiction, especially American or 19th century, or anybody who enjoys looking at the world through the eyes of someone unique.


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