Home » Historical Fiction » Excerpt from The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Excerpt from The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Title: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
Author: Melanie Benjamin
Genre: Historical fiction
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press (July 26, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-0385344159

In her national bestseller Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin imagined the life of the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Now, in this jubilant new novel, Benjamin shines a dazzling spotlight on another fascinating female figure whose story has never fully been told: a woman who became a nineteenth century icon and inspiration—and whose most daunting limitation became her greatest strength.

“Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define it.”

She was only two-foot eight-inches tall, but her legend reaches out to us more than a century later. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” 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 transformed into the world’s most unexpected celebrity.

Here, in Vinnie’s singular and spirited voice, is her amazing adventure—from a showboat “freak” revue where she endured jeering mobs to her fateful meeting with the two men who would change her life: P. T. Barnum and Charles Stratton, AKA Tom Thumb. Their wedding would captivate the nation, preempt coverage of the Civil War, and usher them into the White House and the company of presidents and queens. But Vinnie’s fame would also endanger 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, and of a woman’s public triumphs and personal tragedies, 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.

BOOK 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.”

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