#FridayReads ‘The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb’

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tomthumbA moving love story and a great show biz tale are combined in the new novel by Nicholas Rinaldi, “The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb” (Scribner).

Rinaldi puts himself in the heads of two of P.T. Barnum’s greatest attractions — Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren — and places them in the context of America during the Civil War when these two dwarf superstars knew everyone from Walt Whitman to Abraham Lincoln.

The vivid present tense feeling the author generates in this brisk, wonderfully entertaining 370-page novel feels a bit like E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” in the way it mixes fast-paced storytelling with American history.

Discovered at the age of four by master showman Barnum, Charlie Strattton aka Tom Thumb was groomed into one of the most popular acts in the country and one of the biggest celebrities in the world.

Trained to sing and dance, Tom was a hit in the stage shows presented at the massive Barnum Museum in downtown New York City and was then sent off on a series of U.S. and European tours. Barnum played matchmaker by hiring the female dwarf Lavinia Warren to do scenes with Tom. Romantic sparks were struck that led to one of the great media events of the 1800s — the marriage of Tom and Lavinia.

Rinaldi clearly did tremendous research for this novel, but it never overshadows the personal story of these two unlikely stars.

The love-hate relationship that celebrities have always had with their fame is spelled out early on by Tom when he tells us about his confused feelings for Barnum:

“So, yes, yes — I liked him, and still do. But hated him, too — because he took me, Charlie Stratton, and turned me into Tom Thumb, and there were days when I was never sure who I really was. Me — I — the one who thinks, who talks, who spits, who dreams. Was I, Charlie Stratton, pretending to be Tom Thumb, or Tom Thumb trying to remember I was really Charlie Stratton? Or was I simply the anger they both felt. The loneliness, the confusion, the bad mouth, a bit of steam coming off a hot roof after a summer storm.”

Much of the book is set in New York City during an exceptionally turbulent period, when the populace had mixed feelings about the Civil War which exploded into deadly riots when the draft was instituted. Rinaldi puts his characters — and the reader — in the thick of the action and history truly comes alive. It’s a terrific book.

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Joe Meyers

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