Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Filling in the blanks

In an author's note at the end of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, author Melanie Benjamin writes, "I believe that every novel is either a mystery, a tragedy, or a love story -- some are all three -- and it became clear to me that this is a love story."

The key figures in the love story in her 2011 novel are not, as one might suppose, Lavinia Bump (or Vinnie Warren, as she called herself) and General Tom Thumb, one of the most famous couples in America during the Civil War and for a number of years afterward. No, the love of Vinnie's life, as Benjamin tells the story, is P.T. Barnum, the show business impresario of the period who discovered Tom Thumb and soon incorporated Vinnie, and later her even smaller sister, Minnie, into the act. Barnum, not the General, is the one man whom she can speak frankly with and pour her heart out to. Vinnie and her husband are never particularly close, except on the stage. He remains at heart ever a child, while she, despite her size, is very much a woman.

Tragedy haunts this story, as well, when Minnie dies in childbirth. Later Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) dies, from shame in Benjamin's telling, after a hotel fire..

Yet the novel also offers mystery, the mystery being how much of this tale is true and how much is fiction. As she did in Alice I Have Been, her novel about Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland), Benjamin fills in the blanks left by biographers. And there are always blanks, sometimes significant blanks.

Vinne really did write an autobiography, but it has little to say about her personal life, her motivations or her passions, and certainly nothing about her feelings for either her husband or Barnum. Benjamin has a gift for reading between the lines and inventing plausible explanations for what the biographers can tell us.

She has also written a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, The Aviator's Wife, which I am eager to read to see how she fills in the blanks in that life.

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