Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature by George Sullivan is a biography of a dwarf who grew up as part of P.T. Barnum’s freak show, yet managed to achieve wealth and fame on his own merits, becoming one of the first modern celebrities of world renown.
Author George Sullivan is interested in photographs. When he kept encountering photos of Tom Thumb’s wedding, he became intrigued. Why were there so many photographs from the Civil War era still available? Who were the people in the photographs really? Sullivan’s questions and the answers he found led him to write this biography.
And what an intriguing story he stumbled on. Tom Thumb was actually a man named Charles S. Stratton, who was born in 1838. His parents became alarmed when Charley, as they called him, failed to grow. In fact he only weighed fifteen pounds at four years old and was twenty-four inches tall. His parents worried about Charley’s future, so when P.T. Barnum discovered him and offered to pay money to exhibit Charley in his museum (really a freak show), Charley’s father was all for it.
P.T. Barnum’s story is entwined with that of the character he created for Charley, General Tom Thumb. Fortunately for both of them, Charley was a natural entertainer whose intriguing small stature and outsize personality drew the attention of anyone who met him, including Queen Victoria. Before long, Charley made Barnum, his own parents and himself very rich. The highlight of his career was his marriage to another little person, Lavinia. The images of that wedding captured the world’s attention during the trying times of the Civil War, and many years later, captivated Sullivan as well.
Cybils notes: The end probably went on a bit to long after Tom’s death. The story of Lavinia, Tom’s widow, was rather anticlimactic after his death. Also, there were some inconsistencies, such as why Charley was a spendthrift as a child, yet his wife reported that he had wasted their money at the end. Had he changed that much or was it she who spent their money?
Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature is a lively biography of an extraordinary person. It raises many questions about issues such as exploitation and celebrity, and would be a wonderful book for a book club discussion.
It is nominated for a 2011 Cybils award in the MG/YA nonfiction category.
Laurie Thompson has a wonderful review of the book and an interview with George Sullivan.
Another review at The Fourth Musketeteer
Reading level: Ages 10 and up
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Clarion Books; None edition (April 11, 2011)
Book was provided for Cybils review by the publisher.