Monday, June 27, 2011

My Latest Freebie

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, by Melanie Benjamin, is a very engaging historical novel based on the true life story of one Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, born on October 31, 1841 in Middleboro, Massachusetts. As the title suggests, it is written in the first person, from the perspective of the woman known at first as Lavinia Warren, and later on as Mrs. Tom Thumb.

Warren was born into a loving family, but was determined to make her own way, and so embarked on the intriguing adventure that was to be her life. First, she traveled with a small company of "curiosities" on a riverboat, until The Civil War interrupted that venture, then later performed at P.T. Barnum's American Museum, until she married the most famous little person in history, Charles Stratton, more widely known as Tom Thumb. Standing less than a yard high, Lavinia was determined not to let her diminutive size define her life as small and unmemorable. And indeed, her marriage to Tom Thumb was front page news that rivaled dispatches of the war. They traveled the world and met some of the most important and famous people of their day.

This all sounds quite grand, but there was also much sadness in their lives; Stratton and Warren did not have a natural spousal relationship, since Warren was understandably horrified of the idea of getting pregnant. She and her younger sister, both little people, had been normal sized babies, weighing in at about six pounds. Charles Stratton (Tom Thumb) had weighed nine pounds at birth! Years later, Warren's younger sister, who was even more delicate than herself, would indeed become pregnant and refuse all medical advice to have an abortion because she wanted so badly to be a mother. This proved to be lethal for both mother and child. It was heartbreaking, of course.

Their lives were both interesting and very challenging, and Lavinia found herself wondering whether or not she'd trade all this experience to be a normal size. Good thing, she thought, that the point was moot.

Warren never wrote her own autobiography, and there is no way of knowing how she felt, but I think Melanie Benjamin has done a skillful job of imagining the inner life of an unusual and intelligent woman against a tumultuous and rapidly changing historical backdrop.

I enjoyed this novel very much, and admire its adherence to historical fact.


TLP said...

Yikes! I had never thought of the dangers of childbirth for the wee ones!

Sounds like a good read. Nice post too.

Quack Birder said...

That does sound like a good book!

actonbell said...

Thanks for the corrections, Mom:) I was just very tired...

And actually, one of PT Barnum's hoaxes was the baby of Lavinia and Charles; they borrowed babies to pose with on tour, and it never occurred to people that those babies could not have come out of--that mother. The only way to end this charade was to pretend that they'd lost it. That was a mean thing for Barnum to do to his suckers, but then, he also would post signs reading "This way to the EGRESS!" in his museum. Mean.

Lara, it is a good read, and a different perspective on those years. We usually just think in terms of war and politics.

Doug said...

That does sound interesting. It might help me decondition myself from thinking "One of us! One of us! Geeble gobble geeble gobble" when I read about circus oddities.

JAllgood said...

I'll add it to my books to read list. I love reading your write ups of good reads. Thanks for sharing them!

actonbell said...

Doug, you amaze me.

J'all, thank you--happy reading.