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A Novel

Written by Melanie BenjaminAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Melanie Benjamin



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On Sale: July 26, 2011
Pages: 448 | ISBN: 978-0-345-52757-8
Published by : Delacorte Press Bantam Dell

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Synopsis

For anyone who loves the historical novels of Sara Gruen, Geraldine Brooks, and E. L. Doctorow, a barnstorming tale of an irrepressible, brawling, bawdy era and the remarkable woman who had the courage to match the unique spirit of America’s Gilded Age.

She was only two feet, eight inches tall, but more than a century later, her legend reaches out to us. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Warren Bump was encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public. Instead, she reached out to the immortal impresario P. T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and became the world’s most unexpected celebrity. Vinnie’s wedding captivated the nation, preempted coverage of the Civil War, and even ushered her into the White House. But her fame also endangered the person she prized most: her similarly sized sister, Minnie, a gentle soul unable to escape the glare of Vinnie’s spotlight. A barnstorming novel of the Gilded Age, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is the irresistible epic of a heroine who conquered the country with a heart as big as her dreams—and whose story will surely win over yours.
 
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Excerpt

ONE

My Childhood, or the Early Life of a Tiny

I will begin my story in the conventional way, with my ancestry.

About the unfortunately named Bumps, I have little to say other than they were hardworking people of French descent who somehow felt that shortening "Bonpasse" to "Bump" was an improvement.

With some pride, however, I can trace my pedigree on my mother's side back through Richard Warren of the Mayflower Company, to William, Earl of Warren, who married Gundreda, daughter of William the Conqueror. This is as far back as I have followed my lineage, but I trust it will suffice. Certainly Mr. Barnum, when he first heard it, was quite astonished, and never failed to mention it to the Press!

I was born on 31 October, 1841, on the family farm in Middleborough, Massachusetts, to James and Huldah Bump. Most people cannot contain their surprise when I tell them that I was, in fact, the usual size and weight. Indeed, when the ceremonial weighing of the newborn was completed, I tipped the scales at precisely six pounds!

My entrance into the family was preceded by three siblings, two male and one female, and was followed by another three, two male and one female. All were of ordinary stature except my younger sister, Minnie, born in 1849.

I am told that I grew normally during the first year of my life, then suddenly stopped. My parents didn't notice it at first, but I cannot fault them for that. Who, when having been already blessed with three children, still has the time or interest to pay much attention to the fourth? My dear mother told me that it wasn't until I was nearly two years old that they realized I was still wearing the same clothes--clothes that should already have been outgrown, cleaned and pressed, and laid in the trunk for the next baby. It was only then that my parents grew somewhat alarmed; studying me carefully, they saw that I was maturing in the way of most children--standing, talking, displaying an increased interest in my surroundings. The only thing I was not doing was growing.

They took me to a physician, who appraised me, measured me, poked me. "I cannot offer any physical explanation for this," he informed my worried parents. "The child seems to be perfectly normal, except for her size. Keep an eye on her, and come back in a year's time. But be prepared for the possibility that she might be just one example of God's unexplainable whims, or fancies. She may be the only one I've seen, but I've certainly heard of others like her. In fact, there's one over in Rochester I've been meaning to go see. Heard he can play the violin, even. Astounding."

My parents did not share his enthusiasm for the violin-playing, unexplainable Divine whim. They carried me to another physician in the next town over, who, being a less pious man than the previous expert, explained that I represented "an excellent example of Nature's Occasional Mistakes." He assured my increasingly distressed parents that this was not a bad thing, for it made the world a much more interesting place, just as the occasional two-headed toad and one-eyed kitten did.

In despair, my parents whisked me back home, where they prayed and prayed over my tiny body. Yet no plea to the Almighty would induce me to grow; by my tenth birthday I reached only twenty-four inches and weighed twenty pounds. By this time my parents had welcomed my sister Minnie into the world; when she displayed the same reluctance to grow as I had, they did not take her to any physicians. They simply loved her, as they had always loved me.

"Vinnie," my mother was fond of telling me (Lavinia being the name by which I was called, shortened within the family to Vinnie), "it's not that you're too small, my little chick, but rather that the world is too big."

My poor, tenderhearted mother! She thought that she was reassuring me. She was a lovely, pious creature, tall and thin, a clean, starched apron constantly about her waist. She had shining brown hair that I inherited, slightly worried brown eyes, and an ever-patient smile upon her lips. She only wanted me to be happy, to be safe; she wanted to keep me home, where she was certain less harm could come to me. She was trying, in her simple way, to reconcile me to that future, the only future that she--or anyone else--could envision for one my size.

What she didn't understand was that she was only inciting my curiosity about that big world. Everything was bigger than me; if the world was so much larger that she had to constantly warn me of it, what wonders did it contain? What marvels? I could not understand why anyone would not want to see them.

My father never tried to fool me in this way. He was not a demonstrative man, but around me, and then around Minnie, who was even smaller, he was extremely reticent. I believe he was terrified he might crush us with his big, work-worn hands, so he did not touch us at all, not a pat or a hug. He never seemed able to understand why God had made Minnie and me so small, and I believe he was slightly ashamed of us. Whenever we were out together as a family, he always kept his head bent; this way, he did not have to look anyone in the eye. I'm not sure he completely understood why he did this, or what he was afraid to encounter in the gaze of his fellow man; perhaps he simply didn't want to see pity for us there--or for himself.

Yet he loved us. And in the way of most men, he reacted by trying to solve us, as if we were the one wagon wheel that stubbornly refused to match up with the others, causing the whole contraption to wobble. This took the form of practicality, which, in the end, was much more useful than Mama's clucking and soothing. My first memory was of my father presenting me with a set of wooden steps, lovingly made by his own hands, which were too clumsy for caresses. They had crafted a beautiful set of steps, however, sanded to a honeyed glow so that not a single splinter might puncture a tender, tiny foot. They were lightweight, a miracle of engineering, so that I could easily carry them with me wherever I went.

Later, after the fire, Mr. Barnum gave me a gorgeous set of steps covered in crushed red velvet with my initials embroidered upon them. But they have never been able to take the place of my father's simple gift.

My brothers and sister swooped and ran and carried on like all children, happily including Minnie and me in their play, not worrying very much about whether or not we could keep up. And we could--or rather, I could. Unlike me, Minnie was content with her small corner of the world; she knew she could not easily keep up with the others, so she didn't even try. She found happiness, instead, in what was easily within her reach; no stair steps for her! She spent hours playing with her dolls, sitting on her little stool by the hearth, sewing handkerchiefs or helping Mama prepare meals. She was very shy around others and felt their stares keenly, even though she was as beautiful as a china figurine. Minnie was blessed with impish dark eyes that were such a contrast to her bashful demeanor, black curls, and a smile that revealed one perfect dimple in her left cheek. Only with me, closest to her in size but still larger, able to protect her, did she ever sometimes show curiosity or boldness; once she surprised me by suggesting we creep outside in the middle of the night, to see if there really were fairies living beneath the flowers.

Amused, I took her outside, where we tiptoed, hand in hand, peeking under the forget-me-nots and ferns. While she lifted leaves and petals with dogged optimism, stifling an occasional squeal whenever she happened upon a frog or a startled rabbit, I found my gaze pulled upward. The moon was low and luminous in the night sky; cocking my head, I was just about to make out the face of the man in the moon when Minnie excitedly exclaimed, "Oh, look, Sister! I found one, with green wings!"

She tugged at my sleeve, and I bent down. "It's just a dragonfly," I told her.

"No, it's a fairy, don't you see?"

"I just see a sleepy dragonfly."

"You're not looking at it right, Vinnie. It's as beautiful as a fairy, all green and shimmery. Can't you see it?"

I looked at my sister, her eyes shining brighter than the moon above. Who would have the heart to contradict her?

Growing up, Minnie listened, much more closely than I, to Mama's worries about our safety. Horses were Mama's chief foes; she feared, as long as she lived, that Minnie or I would be trampled or kicked by a stray hoof.

On our behalf, she also feared wells, rain barrels, unsteady tables, large dogs, poison left out for the rats (even after I had long passed the age where I could reasonably be expected not to eat it), doors that latched, broken window sashes, snowdrifts, and falling fireplace logs.

I never understood her terrors. Safe, to me, was exactly where I was; low to the ground, where I became more acquainted with the bottoms of things than the tops. For example, I grew very adept at judging a woman's character or station in life by the hem of her skirt. Tiny, too-perfect stitches or ornate ruffles of course denoted a woman of high class, although not necessarily one of good character. Sloppy, loose, or haphazard stitches didn't always mean that a woman was slovenly in appearance; more often than not, it simply meant that she had so many children and cares she could not spare the time to attend to her own clothing. Those whose skirts sported tiny handprints or burnt patches resulting from too much time in front of the kitchen fire were always the most kindhearted.

Skirts were not the only things with which I was acquainted. Naturally I was more familiar with flowers and weeds than the tops of trees; furniture legs and the unfinished undersides of tables than framed pictures or mirrors. And that is why I never was fearful, why I could not understand my mother's worries; the things with which I was most familiar were the sturdier, more substantial things in life. The legs of the table, the widest part of the tree trunk, the foundation of the house, the things upon which everything else was dependent, upon which everything else was built. These were my world.

What my mother feared most--even more than tables toppling over on either Minnie or myself--was other children.

While she dutifully brought us to church each Sunday, our Christian education ever in her thoughts, my mother was most reluctant to send me to school with my brothers and sister. Fearing merciless teasing, rough play with children who were not accustomed to one my size, she thought it would be best to educate me at home, herself.

I, however, did not share this belief. I'd heard my siblings talk of the wonders of school, of slates and lunch buckets and schoolyard games and the glories of being asked to stay after to wash the blackboard. They came home taunting me with their knowledge, singing multiplication tables and spelling enormous words and pointing to the odd shapes on the globe in the parlor, proudly telling me the names of the continents and oceans.

So when I heard my mother tell my father she thought it best that I stay home with her and the younger children, I stamped my foot with as much authority as a seven-year-old can muster.

"No, Mama, you must allow me to go to school! Aren't I as smart as my brothers and sister? Why shouldn't I go with them, now that I'm old enough? They will look out for me, if that's what you fear."

Mama started to protest, but to my surprise, my father interrupted her.

"Huldah, I am surprised to admit it, but I agree with our Vinnie. She's a sharp little thing, with an intelligence that must be fueled. You could not give her all she needs here. Let her satisfy her curiosity at school, for a life of books is likely all the life she will ever have. It's best we give her that now. She'll have the rest of her days, I'm afraid, to stay home with you."

I was too young to fully understand my father's meaning. I heard only that he wanted me to go to school, and that was all I needed; I threw my arms about him even though I knew he did not appreciate such demonstrations.

"Oh, Papa, I am so very happy! Thank you! I promise I will never make you regret your decision!"

It would be a pretty story, indeed, if I could say that I never did! Yet I have to admit that I was so eager to be allowed my first foray into that large world that I became rather mischievous.

Full of high spirits, so delighted to be where I was, at first I could not be induced to remain in my seat. At the time, you might recall, country school desks were one long table affixed to the perimeter of the room, three-quarters of the way around.

On a dare, I discovered that I was small enough to fit neatly underneath the desk without having to duck my head; basking in the approval of my schoolmates, I took it a step further. Whenever the schoolteacher's back was to us, I would slide off my perch--several large books piled on top of one another--and duck beneath the desk. Then I would run along, barely stifling my giggles as I pinched and poked at my schoolmates' legs: the little girls' sensible woolen pantalets, the boys' worn and patched knees. I was so nimble that they could not catch me; I could run around the entire room and reach the end of the desk almost before the first child had reacted to my lively tugs with a squeak or a squeal.

"Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump," Mr. Dunbar, our teacher, would sputter. "Sit back down immediately!" He would try to catch me, but being the imp that I was, I could elude his grasp easily; he was inclined to heaviness (from the many tarts and pies that the older female students showered upon him), and would flail about, breathing laboriously. By the time he straightened himself up, his face red, his oily hair hanging down upon his forehead, I would be sitting primly in my seat, seemingly oblivious to my classmates' giggles.


From the Hardcover edition.
Melanie Benjamin

About Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin - The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Photo © Todd Rennels

Melanie Benjamin lives in Illinois, where she is at work on her next novel.

Praise

Praise

“By turns heartrending and thrilling, this bighearted novel recounts the life of an extraordinary woman in lush, meticulously researched prose. I loved it!”—Sara Gruen
 
“[Melanie Benjamin] knows how to combine research and readability. And she’s given Vinnie such dignity and courage . . . that her heroine commands attention from the first page.”—The Washington Post

“Remarkable, soaring . . . a spellbinding tale . . . a fascinating story of triumph and tragedy and one person who refused to live a small life.”—BookPage
 
“Melanie Benjamin enfolds the reader in the intimate world of Lavinia Warren Stratton, better known as Mrs. Tom Thumb, [whose] voice is unflinching. . . . That the characters have faults and regrets, as well as hope, adds to the veracity of the novel.”—The Denver Post
 
“A narrative voice that is feisty, intelligent, brave, adventurous, and resourceful.”—The Boston Globe
 
“Grabs you from the opening pages, providing hints of the absorbing and entertaining story to come . . . a delightful cavalcade of late nineteenth-century Americana.”—Library Journal

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Melanie Benjamin - The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Photo © Todd Rennels

2/3/2015

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