Monday, August 22, 2011

Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature by George Sullivan

When Charles Stratton was born, by all accounts he was an average child. Then, at six months old, he stopped growing. He was an otherwise healthy child who was just over two feet tall. A clever and talented boy, he soon caught the eye of P.T. Barnum. After changing his name, his age, and his life story, Barnum made Charles - now Tom Thumb - a star. He would perform all over the world as a singer, dancer, actor, and comic. This is the story of how Tom Thumb earned money and fame - and how it changed his life.

Before reading this book I had no idea who Tom Thumb was, and only a very basic idea of P.T. Barnum. This is a well-paced, well-put-together biography that I think will be pretty popular with readers of all ages. But it's more than a straight biography; it also looks at the exploitation of child stars - what it was in the 1800s and how it has/has not changed since then. I was reminded in some parts about the Dionne Quintuplets and how they were put on display to perform for crowds. What would Charles Stratton's life have been like if he wasn't Tom Thumb? Sullivan also illustrates in many ways how 'times were different,' particularly when talking about performing in blackface or when mentioning that Tom was so nervous about the possibility of being attacked on a cross-country train trip that he wanted all passengers to carry guns (although the beliefs about the "Indian violence" aren't critiqued quite as harshly as blackface). It's also a look at the culture of celebrity and the celebrity business; the elaborate photographs and merchandise from Tom Thumb's wedding reminded me in some way of the excitement around Prince William's recent wedding in terms of selling items to a hungry public (I myself have a commemorative keychain of the royal wedding).

I received a review copy through NetGalley, but this book is out in stores now.

Find it at IndieBound.

Read it with:
Tom Thumb by Richard Jesse Watson
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming

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