Clicking through cable channels offers an amazing amount of "reality" television shows. Why are we obsessed with shows about other's misfortunes, deformities, addictions or meltdowns? Is there a shift in modern society? Some point to MTV's "The Real World" and CBS "Survivor" as the birth of reality television. In fact, we should thank folks like P.T. Barnum, an industry leader in oddity museums, traveling shows and the circus.
Granted, there were no televisions in the 1860s, but the general public craved entertainment and were thrilled to gaze upon those who were so different from themselves. Tattooed men, bearded ladies, giants and plate twirlers traveled the country aboard barges, bringing their shows to seedy ports up and down rivers like the Mississippi.
Mercy Lavinia "Vinnie" Warren Bump grew up on a farm in Massachusetts. From a fine family, whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, Vinnie grew up sophisticated as any woman in polite society. She was even a school teacher.
At only two feet eight inches tall, her family wanted to protect her, but Vinny longed to see the world. "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb" is a novel detailing Vinny's relationship with PT Barnum, show business, her family and her path to international fame. Vinny carried herself with perfect deportment and was an accomplished singer. The public was amazed by her perfection in miniature.
Mr. Barnum, who discovered Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb, was quick to see the value in a show with the original "little couple." The wedding of Charles and Vinny captivated the globe, garnering front page headlines, despite it being the height of the Civil War. Americans welcomed a heart-warming distraction, while lists of the dead were published daily.
This story narrates the obstacles, career and accomplishments of Mrs. Tom Thumb. For those who liked "Water for Elephants," you may enjoy this novel, set before and after the Civil War. It gives readers an inside look at the gritty, cut-throat life of show business. As partners, Mr. Barnum was a marketing genius and Vinny was a practical and savvy businesswoman. Her ambition brought her wealth and adoration as well as loneliness and grief. Even though she was famous 150 years ago, Vinny has a lot in common with today's "reality" stars. I wonder what she'd think of our modern day "freak shows."
Recommended by Frazier Walker