Thursday, October 27, 2011

Review of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Rating - 4

Born a dwarf in the early 1800s, Lavinia Bump was part of a loving family and community. She constantly chafed against the limitations she had not only as a dwarf, but as a woman. Women were not typically educated in the 19th century, but Lavinia not only learned, but was a teacher for a period of time. Yearning to move beyond her restrictive environment, she took a job as an entertainer on a riverboat just prior to the Civil War. The man who "recruited" her was believed to be a family relative, but ultimately she became a member of a "freak" show and was all but sold into prostitution by her "cousin". She didn't let her narrow escape from the riverboat keep her from moving on. Eventually, she ended up as part of P.T. Barnum's show and circus. She met Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), one of the best known and most-beloved performers in Barnum's show and married him. Lavinia and Charles had one of the most famous marriages of it's time, but it wasn't a love match. Together, they became one of Barnum's most popular performers. They traveled the world, had tea with the Queen of England and lived as part of high society in New York. P. T. Barnum was Lavinia's best friends and confidantes. He, alone, of everyone she knew thought the way she did and between the two of them the fame and fortune of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thumb continued to grow, as did P.T. Barnum's.

Lavinia is a very strong character. She dearly loved her family, especially her younger sister, Minnie, who eventually became part of the troupe. She was very ambitious, though, and her career and fame was always first and foremost in her mind and in the decisions she made.

One of the most interesting features of this novel for me was the historical context. Benjamin did exhaustive research not only about Lavinia but also of the world in which she lived. I learned a lot about the Gilded Age, circus performing, and the life of a "small person" during a time when people paid to see "freaks" and were intolerant of anyone who is different.
This is a well-written book, full of history, romance, and performance.

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