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BOOK REVIEW

Fictional autobiography reimagines Mrs. Tom Thumb’s life

By Diane White
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2011

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Melanie Benjamin’s fictional autobiography of 32-inch tall Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton, Mrs. Tom Thumb, portrays a woman whose dreams and ambitions were as big as she was small.

The legendary impresario P.T. Barnum made “Vinnie’’ one of the most widely recognized public figures of her time. Yet little is known of her personal life. Benjamin’s reimagined Vinnie is a little lady, a perfectly proportioned miniature person who insists on being treated as a full-fledged human being, not a sideshow freak or a living doll.

Benjamin gives her a narrative voice that is feisty, intelligent, brave, adventurous, and resourceful. We can’t know whether the real woman possessed all these attributes, but she must have had a lot of gumption to leave the safety of her family’s farm to embark on a career in show business. At the time it would have been an extraordinary move for any sheltered young woman, let alone one so tiny and seemingly vulnerable.

She was born in 1841 in Middleborough. Her parents and two older brothers were average size, but Vinnie and her younger sister Minnie, though each weighed about 6 pounds at birth but ended up less than 3 feet tall at maturity.

By the age of 17 Vinnie is a primary school teacher in Middleborough, but she dreams of bigger things than small-town spinsterhood. Enter Colonel John Wood, a dubious character who arrives at the farm claiming to be a cousin and offering Vinnie a job singing on his Mississippi River showboat, his “Floating Palace of Curiosities and Entertainment.’’ Soon she’s on a train, heading west.

The riverboat experience appears promising but eventually heads south. Vinnie proves enormously popular with audiences. She rises to every challenge and makes friends with her fellow performers. However, Wood reveals himself to be a true villain, plotting to sell her favors to the highest bidder. Her honor is saved by the outbreak of the Civil War. Confederates seize the showboat, and the troupe is forced to flee Vicksburg.

Back home in Middleborough, Vinnie misses the excitement of travel, the camaraderie of her fellow performers. She writes a letter to Barnum, enclosing her press cuttings. In Barnum, Vinnie meets her match. For her, it’s love at first sight. “How one man’s gaze could engage so many senses, I had no idea; I only know his did. It nearly knocked the breath out of me; my heart did a riotous somersault as the back of my neck tickled with excitement.’’

Barnum is drawn to her, too, but it was bound to be a love of the mind. Ever the showman, he saw her potential as an attraction, the “Little Queen of Beauty,’’ and he was not disappointed. He engineers her marriage to General Tom Thumb, Charles Stratton. He also persuades her to invite her shy sister Minnie to be her attendant. The wedding is a sensation, front page news for weeks. Their marriage is less successful. There is fondness, but no real intimacy because Vinnie is terrified that having a child might kill her, a fear that is horribly confirmed when Minnie dies in childbirth.

In an author’s note, Benjamin writes that she first encountered her subject in E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,’’ where she appeared, briefly, in a scene with Houdini. Vinnie’s life lends itself to a Doctorow-type treatment, since she traveled the world and met US presidents, Queen Victoria, the prince and princess of Wales, Brigham Young, and many of the famous and fashionable people of her time. Benjamin treats that part of her life in a colorful and entertaining fashion. But the real strength of this novel lies in the way she is able to render Vinnie, and all her major characters, fully human and sympathetic.

Diane White, ia freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky., can be reached at duxwhite@aol.com.

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB

By Melanie Benjamin

Delacorte, 424 pp., $25