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Merle

Merle

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb - Melanie Benjamin This is an entertaining novel about a colorful historical figure; however, it doesn't rise much above average and it has a couple of unfortunate flaws.

Lavinia "Vinnie" Warren was a pre-Civil War celebrity: less than three feet tall as an adult, but dignified and ladylike, she made a career as an entertainer and married another little person, General Tom Thumb. The real Lavinia's autobiography was an unfinished and apparently quite dull travelogue, mostly listing places she'd been and people she'd met, and so Benjamin imagines a much more intimate story of her life in this novel.

Benjamin's version is a highly entertaining book. Lavinia had an eventful life: beginning in small-town Massachusetts, where she was born and, as a teenager, briefly worked as a schoolteacher; to a sleazy carnival boat on the Mississippi; to her employment with the famous P.T. Barnum, for whom Benjamin posits that she felt a lifelong unrequited love. Vinnie has a strong voice and a strong personality, and is consistently interesting in her contradictions. She's flawed and, like many people, she misidentifies her flaws: for instance, after convincing her even smaller sister, Minnie, to join her in her work, Vinnie berates herself for not sheltering Minnie more, when the reader can see that the real problem is Vinnie's failure to treat Minnie as an adult. Flawed, complex characters make for good fiction, and Vinnie is certainly both.

On the other hand, the book is quite average in other ways. The supporting cast is mostly one-note: Tom Thumb is childlike, Vinnie's parents loving but ineffectual, Minnie overly perfect. The writing style is adequate but nothing special, with lots of foreshadowing that's about as subtle as a sledgehammer. The recreation of mid 19th century America is always interesting and sometimes quite vivid, but it's not the most immersive example that I've seen.

One of the major problems, though, is that the "autobiography" conceit lacks credibility. This is a novel through and through: not just in the structure, dialogue, and so on (which I can overlook, because I like dialogue), but in that it's simply not believable that the reserved, prudish, always proper Vinnie would write this sort of story for public consumption. Details about sexual encounters and feelings, when she's horrified by even the mention of sex? Private shames, embarrassments and guilts that she keeps even from her closest confidantes? No: Vinnie would write exactly the sort of autobiography the real Lavinia did write, and Benjamin does nothing to convince readers otherwise.

Second, although the book initially promises to celebrate Vinnie's unconventionality, it winds up reinforcing gender stereotypes. "I suppose it would be fashionable to admit to some reservations as I undertake to write the History of My Life," Vinnie says in the prologue. "We women are timid creatures, after all; we must retire behind a veil of secrecy. . . . Rubbish!" Later on, however, the book criticizes Vinnie heavily for her failure to coo at babies (treating it as a major character flaw) and her refusal to become pregnant. She knows that, given her size, childbirth would probably kill her; but apparently her unwillingness to risk it is somehow "cowardly," rather than common sense. This is in stark contrast to Minnie, who's portrayed as a perfect angel as a result of her more traditional baby-loving femininity.

In the end, then, this book did not quite live up to the promise of its early chapters. It's an easy, entertaining read, but not quite as well thought out as it could have been.