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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Markie's Review of Mrs. Tom Thumb

While this book wasn't particularly entertaining; definitely not a page turner and nothing I would read again, I found the subject quite fascinating and I'm glad I read it. What fascinated me? Well, first off the idea that a person can be born a normal sized baby and then at at couple years old stop growing vertically, while otherwise continuing to age and develop normally in every other way. Apparently this type of dwarfism is not common today because it's easily treatable with hormone therapy. I guess that's why you never see little teeny tiny pocket people around any more. Kinda sad. I miss them... not that I ever had them... but still... I miss them.

I'm also fascinated by what kind of challenges one would face being a teeny tiny person in a normal world (or being a normal person in a world of giants depending on your perspective). "I had always looked up, of course; that was my natural position, just as a flamingo stands on one leg or an otter swims on its back" - challenging, both on a practical basis; things like boarding a train, getting into bed, using a bathroom, cooking, finding clothes, etc.; and on a social basis - the constant stares and whispers, and the challenge of finding a companion. In the case of Miss Lavinia Warren Bump there were extremely limited options.

I also think its facinating the way the author gave a personality and voice to this little person. I have no idea whether it was accurate or not; whether she was the nicest kindest bravest person in the world, or a selfish, bitter, cynical beotch. I suspect like most of us she was some of all the above. For me, I found the personality and voice that the author gave her to be believable, and I did not dislike her. I thought her motivations seemed genuine and I never had a "gimme-a-break" moment where I felt like nobody would act/feel/behave that way.

I don't know how I would handle being a teeny tiny person. Probably not gracefully. I think I would have been very reclusive, willing to stay on the farm and be sheltered and protected, and terrified of the day when my parents would no longer be around to provide that shelter and protection. I loved the fact that Vinnie did not want to be defined by her size, and had the courage and determination to first become a school teacher, and then to go explore the world. I didn't think there was anything incongruous or disingenuous about her wanting to protect her little sister, while at the same time feeling the need to get off the farm herself, see the world, and have people know and remember her.

I also can't judge her for marrying for practical and financial reasons rather than for love. I believe people have been doing that for generations. In fact I think the idea of marrying solely because you are in love is a relatively modern idea. Arranged marriages still happen today in many parts of the world. And again, her options were very limited. Marrying a normal (or giant depending on perspective) sized person would be out of the question for reasons I would think I need not explain. I think it was very sad that she never had any intimacy in her marriage (according the author) - I felt particularly sad for her husband, but again I can't blame her. Indeed she saw her worst fears played out when Minny foolishly did what Vinnie knew she could never do. It's just sad they didn't have something better than prevention powders in those days. Or maybe they did, but these tiny people just didn't know about it, or couldn't find anything their size. Poor little people.

I found P.T. Barnum fascinating too, and I wouldn't mind learning more about him. He certainly left a legacy. The Barnum & Bailey circus still travels around the country today. I liked the way the author portrayed him and would like to think it was accurate. I felt that while he was clearly a business man and out to provide entertainment and make a buck, he respected his employees. I personally don't have any problem with his passing off a wrinkled old lady as being 161 years old and the nanny of George Washington, or sewing half a monkey to half a fish and calling it a mermaid. I love that in our nation a person is free to find suckers and take their money. I did have a problem with his taking orphans and trying to pass them off as the Thumb's child; while at the same time being impressed by the brazenness of it. I think he probably should have done some jail time for that one given that people around the world sent expensive gifts for the baby's birth, and again for its supposed death.

I like the way that the author focused the narrative on the relationship between Barnum and Vinnie. I was sad that Vinnie blamed herself and Barnum for her sisters death, but again I found it genuine and didn't question it. I was happy that they reconciled in the end. These are two people that I will add to my list of people I'd like to meet on the other side. Of course I also found her interaction with, and feelings about the Mormons interesting. I completely understand her disgust at Polygamy. I wish I knew more about her meeting with Brigham Young.

I'm actually old enough, and maybe some of you are too, to remember "Freak Shows". I remember one "human oddity" I saw as a child. It was a tiny man. I paid my dime or whatever it was, and climbed the stairs into a trailer where we stood behind some Plexiglas staring at a little man in a tiny recliner watching TV. He wasn't an every day Oompa Loompa like midget, but he also wasn't a perfectly proportioned little man like Tom Thumb. He was rather misshapen, hunched over, and looked like he must be in constant pain. He looked to be in his middle ages and quite unhappy. I can't blame him. In the few minutes that I was there I witnessed several Cletuses banging on the Plexiglas, and shouting things to try and get the little guy to do something, like Dudley Dursely trying to get the attention of the Burmese Python. But the tiny man never acknowledged the people on the other side of the glass. I felt very sorry for this little person, and wondered about the ethics of this situation. On the one hand we were providing him with an honest living (assuming his employers were treating him fairly) while on the other hand it may have been at the expense of his dignity and self worth.

I pondered this ethical question throughout the book. It's one of the reasons I ultimately give this book thumbs up. It made me ponder some big questions. I like how the Author addressed this issue and how it must have always been a part of Vinnie's thinking. "There were hundreds of 'Tom Thumb Wedding' parties; 'Tom Thumb Wedding" fundraisers; 'Tom Thumb wedding' pageants at schools. Was I supposed to be touched by this, viewing it as a tribute to our love? Or was I supposed to be offended, seeing it as a mockery, a joke? I never could decide." When an Elvis impersonator marries a couple in Vegas, or dozens of them parachute from an airplane is it a tribute? a mockery? Both? Can you really pay tribute to somebody while you are making a joke of their appearance/size/voice/style/etc.?

Other passages that made me ponder:
"I wondered if this was how it always felt when all your dreams came true. Perhaps, after living with them for so long, did you simply toss them away - and begin to dream about something else?"
- Discussion point: Have you ever had a dream come true; one that you thought if only you had that one thing you would be happy for the rest of your life? How did you feel immediately after? 1,5,10 years after? Are you still waiting for your dreams to come true, and provide you the happiness you long for?
"I must confess, right here and now, to making a dreadful assumption. And that assumption was that a person this tall who moved this slowly, must be very slow of mind and wit and well."
- Discussion point: What assumptions do you make based on appearances? Are others justified in making assumptions about us based on our appearance, religious belief, occupation, etc.?
"I imagined what it would be like to be able to walk around freely, anonymously, nothing about me remarkable in any way. Would I like it? Would I trade my fame if it meant that I never had to suffer fools hugging me to them ever again? I honestly did not know. And I was more than a little relieved that it was a moot point, after all."
- Discussion point: Have you ever wanted to be a movie star/sports hero/national leader/famous singer/etc.? Do we envy them without considering what they sacrifice in return for their fame? Would you be willing to pay the price in lost freedom and privacy?

Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the authors portrayal of Vinnie and whether or not you think she was a good or bad person there is no disputing the fact that this tiny person had the courage to travel the world, meeting kings, queens and heads of state, and on one tour alone "traveled 55,487 miles (31,216 of them by sea) and gave 1,472 entertainments in 587 different cities and towns in all climates of the world without missing a single performance because of accident or illness" and this without most of the modern conveniences we enjoy today. That's a pretty amazing feat IMHO and deserves my admiration and respect, if for nothing else.

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