Little People Big World: the Original

The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb (NetGalley ARC)
Nicholas Rinaldi
release date: August 2014

I know little of freak shows or P.T. Barnum, other than the circus. My exposure to little people came first from The Wizard of Oz as a child–pretty exploitive, I’m guessing–, and, more recently, the reality show Little People, Big World. So a historical novel about General Tom Thumb of P.T. Barnum’s great museum in New York City sounded interesting. Author Nicholas Rinaldi alternates the voice of Charles Stratton (aka Tom Thumb) and his wife Lavinia Warren.

We meet Charles Stratton at age five when P.T. Barnum approaches his parents, wanting to exhibit the little boy at his American Museum. With few prospects–no special education, no Americans with Disabilities Act–Charlie’s parents sent him off with Barnum, father in tow as chaperone. Stratton has a

tutor, Mr. Kwink, and he finds another family with the Snake Charmer, the Albino Lady, Nellis, the man without arms, Mary Darling, the house magician. Barnum teaches the young performer, now dubbed General Tom Thumb, how to sing, dance, and mime. And life for this little person revolves around Barnum, his museum, touring, and performing with the other “exhibits”. Lavinia enters the scene when Charles is twenty-one, the attraction is immediate, and the rest, as they say, is history. In many ways, the Strattons’ lives were the original reality show, pre-dating Matt and Amy Roloff (link) by well over 150 years.

The conceit of Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel is that Charles Stratton, as Tom Thumb, acted as a Union spy during the civil war. Tom Thumb’s extensive travels (one tour was estimated to be over 55,000 miles by land and sea) provided the perfect cover. So in Rinaldi’s world, Tom travels, meets and greets his admirers, and every so often is given an envelope with the pass word, “Greenwood” and then passes it along to a courier. Interesting idea. Totally fiction from what I could read online. But perhaps most disappointing of all, never really explored by Rinaldi, other than the pick-up and drop-off.

The novel is full of walk-ons by an incredible number of important people in the 1860s: Walt Whitman, John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln. But the writing reads more like a history book or encyclopedia than a novel, and the incredibly colorful characters remained wooden and flat. For charming, read this account of Tom Thumb and his wife, Sketch of the Life. Personal appearance, character, and manners of  Charles S. Stratton, the man in miniature, known as Tom Thumb (link) written in 1874. It’s the “account of Remarkable Dwarfs, Giants, and other Human Phenomena, of Ancient and Modern times”. I think you’ll be just as satisfied as reading this novel.

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