The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb

A Novel

About The Book

An irresistible novel that “charts a harrowing tour through the Civil War” (Connecticut Post) and chronicles the life of Tom Thumb—the tiny man who became, in his time, America’s most famous entertainer.

“I was four years old when Barnum discovered me, and soon to turn five when I first appeared on the big stage of his American Museum.” So begins the story of Tom Thumb, who at just twenty-five-inches tall, rises to global fame as America’s most beloved entertainer. With his parents’ blessing, Tom comes of age in Barnum’s five-story gallery of oddities, exploring its mystical artifacts and exotic animals between his performances to sold-out crowds. One day in the museum’s basement menagerie, Tom meets a new performer, Lavinia Warren, who stands three inches shorter than he. It’s love at first sight, and Barnum quickly arranges the largest wedding reception New York City has ever seen. As cannon fire echoes across Bull Run and Antietam, both North and South are briefly united by their fascination with “General” Tom Thumb and his beautiful, petite wife.

Despite the Civil War, Tom and Lavinia embark on a honeymoon tour, where they encounter cities and people ravaged by the ongoing conflict. But as the tour winds down, an unexpected danger follows Tom and Lavinia back home.

Witty, lyrical, and with a colorful cast of notable figures of the period, The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb is an evocative, poignant imagining of one man’s story, from a “master of elegant prose and psychological insight” (Entertainment Weekly).

Excerpt

The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb PROLOGUE LIFE IS A ROAD
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you.

You must travel it for yourself. . . .

Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. . . .

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Long before the war started, it was already there, breathing, rumbling, hidden. It was in the clouds, in the rush of the rivers and in the rain, in the way people talked, the things they said and didn’t say. The worry, the awareness that things were wrong and getting worse.

I remember my father saying there was no easy answer, there would be a war and a lot of killing. He looked me in the eye. “And aren’t you glad, Charlie, that you’re a tiny runt of a dwarf and won’t have to carry a gun and fight.” It wasn’t a question, it was a casual observation that he left hanging in the air. And it made me miserable because even then, young as I was, I didn’t like the idea of being left out of anything, especially this wild, strange thing my father was talking about, filled with smoke and thunder and charging horses.

But the war hung back, biding its time. It whispered, it murmured. And maybe, I thought—maybe it would change its mind and go home to wherever it came from. But that was a big maybe, so big you could walk around inside it, and there was no place to hide.

* * *

I had been a large baby, nine pounds two ounces. My mother never tired of telling me that. After half a year, I measured twenty-five inches, head to feet—but afterward, nothing. I was twenty-five inches tall, and was stuck at that height until I was fifteen years old. Then I was growing again, but slowly, an inch a year, sometimes less.

It used to bother me, the way my mother was always saying I’d been a big, healthy baby. In part, I think, she was letting me know I had given her a hard time when I was born. But there was something else, too, which I eventually understood. She wanted me to know there was nothing wrong with me at birth. She had delivered me in perfect condition—normal, not a dwarf—and if, after six months, I suddenly stopped growing, it wasn’t her fault, it was mine.

That may, in fact, have been the way it was: a secret willfulness deep inside me, invisible even to myself. A decision to be different. Not a conscious choice made on a certain day, but something written in my bones. And the irony is that my smallness was not the curse my parents first thought it was, but a blessing, for them and for me. Though I have, of late, come to understand that blessings, like gift horses, may come with a bad set of teeth.

I spent my first years in a small house on a narrow street, and have vivid memories of my two sisters, both older than I. They used to run around the house in their flimsy cotton shifts, or in nothing at all, throwing pillows at me. They would grab my arms and swing me back and forth, then toss me in the air and bounce me on the bed. I liked that.

They taught me my ABCs, and I watched as they wove their hair into long braids that they piled high on their heads. In their best Sunday clothes, their dark red satins, they were the prettiest girls in the neighborhood. I have pictures of them, pasted in a large book of photographs that I keep. Pictures of my parents, pictures of Barnum, pictures of Queen Victoria, Louis Philippe, Lincoln, Queen Isabella, and too many others. Pictures of pictures. Memory is a barbed hook. No matter how you struggle, you never get free.

* * *

I was four years old when Barnum discovered me, and soon to turn five when I first appeared on the big stage at his American Museum. Barnum told the world I was eleven, lest anyone imagine I was just an undernourished slow grower and not an authentic dwarf. And, on the theory that an English dwarf would be of more interest to Americans than a homegrown dwarf from Connecticut, he announced that I was English-born and had just arrived from London.

My mother was furious. Bad enough that he lied about my age and changed my name to Tom Thumb, but it was nothing less than outrageous to declare that I was English-born, and to print it on a poster. Since my mother had never set foot in England, it was tantamount to saying she wasn’t my mother!

She fumed and fussed so much that Barnum offered to tear up the contract and let her take me home to Connecticut—a quick end to my career before it even started. But no, not for the world was she going to let such a thing happen, and Barnum must have known that all along.

My first performance was in the Christmas pageant, which ran for three weeks. Mary Darling, the house magician, played the Holy Mother, and the Bearded Lady was Joseph. I was the Infant in the manger. A few janitors with strong singing voices were the shepherds. Sheep were the sheep, and a camel was the camel. After “Silent Night” and a few other carols, I leaped out of the manger and performed my whirling, churning, acrobatic breakdown dance. Then I hopped back into the manger and listened to the bone-rocking, spine-tingling, ego-building applause. It was exciting to be the newborn Savior. I was looking forward to the time when I would cure lepers, raise the dead, and change water into wine. But I would skip the part about being nailed to a cross.

The Museum was on Broadway, across from St. Paul’s and the Astor House, and what a place it was. Big, brash, and splashy. I still remember the first time I saw it. The building stood five stories high, and it spread wide, filling the corner at Broadway and Ann Street. Sunlight blazed on the white marble, and there were massive painted plaques between the windows, images of the live animals that could be seen inside. A tiger, a bear, a buffalo, an orangutan, a pair of zebras. And, daily, huge, gaudy banners were hung from the balconies, listing the day’s special attractions—

LIVING MONSTER SNAKES

MYSTERIOUS GYPSY GIRL

FAMILY OF ALBINOS

BOHEMIAN GLASS BLOWERS

WILD INDIANS IN SAVAGE WAR DRESS

And, on days when I was performing, an enormous banner for me—

GENERAL TOM THUMB

SMALLEST MAN IN THE KNOWN WORLD

On the second-floor balcony, a brass band played one tune after another, welcoming the crowds that came pouring into the Museum—some heading for the theater, others browsing through the many halls and galleries that were filled with paintings, statues, ancient coins, medieval suits of armor, muskets and three-cornered hats from the time of the Revolution. A poster by the ticket office boasted that the Museum contained over 100,000 CURIOSITIES.

In the wide halls, there were large glass display windows, floor to ceiling, showing bearskins and leopard skins, the skeleton of an ape, the jaw of a dinosaur, stuffed birds, a stuffed moose. Plenty of living animals too, in cages on each floor, and an entire menagerie in the basement.

In an alcove on the third floor, there were three Egyptian mummies in various stages of unwrap. I liked those mummies, and often wondered how they felt, lying there, with strangers like me going close and staring.

* * *

At the Museum, there was a tutor who worked with me several hours a week. Kwink was his name. “Just Kwink, without the mister,” he said. He had large brown eyes and a bushy head of white hair. His method was to bring me around to four or five exhibits, and we studied the accompanying information cards. He explained the words I didn’t know, and I wrote them down in a book of blank pages that he gave me. We looked at stuffed birds and animals, many that I’d never heard of, and a large collection of rocks and crystals, all new to me. I learned what a kimono was, and how to spell it. I touched a cannonball, and learned a bit about that, too. A canoe from the West Indies. A toga, a sari, a walrus tusk. A machine that tested your strength and a machine that talked with a human voice.

It was fun. I was learning new words, and after each session, I had to write ten sentences, each with one of the new words in it. I enjoyed that. New words and new facts, and how to write and remember.

On the fourth floor there was a scale model of Paris with an enormous number of tiny buildings carved from wood. Kwink had spent an entire year in Paris, and he pointed out some of the famous buildings and streets. Paris, yes. I was hungry for it, and worked harder than ever on the French words and phrases that Kwink taught me.

* * *

Barnum’s office was on the second floor, next to the Hall of Mirrors, which held trick mirrors that made you look like anything but yourself. In one I was a giant, in another I was shorter than a puppy. In yet another, my head was larger than my body, and I was upside down—amusing, yes, but to see myself like that made me dizzy.

On the same floor, there was a whole gallery of wax figures, including George Washington and all of the Presidents, along with Queen Victoria, Napoléon, Jesus, Moses, and the Siamese Twins. And, toward the end of my first year at the Museum, a wax replica of me in my blue Napoléon uniform—General Tom Thumb.

Best of all, though, in that five-story house of wonders, it was the people—the acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists, ropedancers. The Tattooed Man, and the Albino Lady. The sword-swallower and the fire-eater, the fortune-teller, and the Bearded Lady. There was a dancer, Josephine West, with a beauty mark on her right cheek. Whenever our paths crossed, anywhere in the Museum, she would pick me up and waltz me around, swinging me in the air as if I were a poodle.

And Nellis, the Man Without Arms, who could write with his toes, pencil on paper. With those remarkable toes, he could load a pistol and pull the trigger. When he was in a shooting mood, he displayed his talent in the basement shooting gallery, hitting the bull’s-eye with every shot. He wanted me to be part of his act, shooting an apple off my head—and, with youthful enthusiasm, I considered it an exciting idea. But Barnum forbade it, and threatened to fire Nellis if he ever came near me with a gun.

The Snake-Charmer let me handle her snake, and the African Earth Woman let me pound on her tom-toms. The Albino Lady followed me on all fours and blew her hot breath on the back of my neck.

Zobeide Luti, one of the Circassian Ladies, let me watch while she washed her hair with beer so it would frizz up and make her look Circassian. She was beautiful, as Circassian women are said to be. But, as I later learned, she wasn’t from Circassia—if, in fact, there even was such a place. She was from Beekman Street, within walking distance of the Museum. The other Circassians were also local—one from Brooklyn, one from the Bronx. Two were Hungarian, from Long Island. Years later, they were still around and still beautiful, still washing their hair with beer.

As the days and weeks wore on, the person who interested me more and more was the house magician, Mary Darling. She had slender arms, long fingers, hazel eyes, and an exotic head of red hair. She was an ingenious conjuror. She could make feathers fall from the ceiling like flakes of snow, then make them disappear. One day she pulled a white mouse out of my ear and put it in my pocket—but when I reached in, there was nothing there.

Hers was a sad story. She had stolen a bunch of money from her father, and ran off with a lover, who took the money and abandoned her. She went crazy for a while and spent some time in an asylum. But she recovered, and there she was, at the Museum, and thriving.

As I watched her rehearse her tricks, my feelings for her grew. But I came to understand, painfully, that she had no real interest in me. I was a toy, a child, a dwarf—much loved by the crowds, but still, to her, merely a dwarf, an amusing distraction. She wanted to incorporate me into her act, pulling me out of a big straw hat, then making me vanish in an empty whisky keg. But Barnum killed it. He thought it would demean me and tarnish my image.

Still, Mary Darling, with that gleam in her eyes, and so daring. For every performance, she dressed as a man, in black evening wear, jacket and pants and a red cravat. I was four when I first met her, then quickly five. And she was—what? Nineteen? Twenty-two? She was a magician, she could have been a hundred and who would have known the difference? Those eyes, that sly, ironic smile. I sometimes imagined that she would wave a wand, or snap her fingers, and I would suddenly be six feet tall and exactly her age, and off we would go to some hidden isle in the Pacific. But a dream, that’s all it was.

* * *

The third floor held its share of exhibits, and it also held the entrance to the theater. When I first arrived, the theater was of modest size—but Barnum was always expanding, and, before long, the theater was large enough to seat three thousand. It was there that his actors presented plays, and there, too, on the enormous stage, that the acrobats, fire-eaters, and aerialists appeared, and the Kiowa and Cheyenne chiefs from the Far West, when they visited New York.

And on that stage, I offered my song-and-dance routines, wearing a kilt when I danced my Highland fling, and a three-cornered hat when I sang my Yankee Doodle song. Barnum taught me. He gave me the words, the timing, the fancy foot movements, and that special way of leaping out, front and center, as the curtain rose—

Yankee Doodle ride your horse,

Yankee Doodle randy—

Be quick to kiss the pretty girls

Sweet as sugar candy.

I was a fast learner, good at picking up the moves. Quick, too, with the songs, the jokes, the puns, the wicked smiles.

At five I often drank a few sips of wine with my dinner. On my sixth birthday I lit a cigar onstage, and the audience out there, the mothers and kids, the laborers, shopkeepers, immigrants just off the boat—they loved it. Even the clergymen, who considered me a gift from God. I could read and write, add and subtract, and even had a few words of French, the bad ones, which I’d learned not from Kwink but from a janitor who’d grown up in Marseille.

“Precocious” is the word our family doctor had for me. My parents used that word often, whenever they couldn’t think what to make of me. But the truth of the matter is that in some ways I was, at times, just plain bad, with a will of my own and a mind full of mischief.

I already knew something about sex, the general idea of it. At home, in Bridgeport, I’d seen my mother and father performing with great zest under the sheets, in their creaky wooden bed, which my father had made with his carpenter’s tools. That’s what he was, a carpenter. When he was in bed with my mother, she moaned, making an awesome sound, and it was a bit of a while before I understood that her moaning had nothing to do with pain.

* * *

“Get out there and kill them dead,” Barnum would say, as I pulled on my sailor suit for the three o’clock performance. At the piano, Old Tom, an African from Madison Street, banged away at the keys, and I jumped out from the wings and danced the hornpipe. Always, the crowd went wild. Applause, foot stomping. Shouts of bravo. They fussed over me because I was small and because I was perfectly formed, all the parts of me correctly proportioned—head, torso, arms, legs. But mostly, I think, they liked me because I reminded them of themselves. Looking at me, they knew that the self inside their bodies was something small, needing help. It could be hurt. It could be stepped on and bruised. So I was them, and they, in a sense, were me, all of us part of the same tongue-twisting song.

When Barnum thought I was ready, he took me out on the road for two- or three-day stints in New Jersey and lower Connecticut. It was a dizzying swirl—the faces, the people, the smiles and laughs as I sang and danced, and offered the impersonations that I learned from Barnum. I was Napoléon, wordless, brooding after Waterloo. I was Ajax, waving a sword, and Hercules struggling to lift an immense rock, which was papier-mâché, light as a feather. Or Samson in a ragged leopard skin, flexing my biceps—a joke, of course, because at fifteen pounds, what muscles did I have?

The ladies, they liked me best when I appeared in my flesh-colored tights and played Cupid, shooting toy arrows into the crowd—and how they grabbed for them, my little love darts. When my act was over, I walked among them, and they picked me up and hugged me, and passed me around.

It was a young dwarf’s paradise. The rustling of their silks, the lure of their perfume, the heaving of their breasts as they breathed. Not bad, I thought, not bad at all. I could live with that. The only problem, since I was so short, just twenty-five inches, I wondered who in the world would ever want to marry me? And already, young as I was, I was thinking about that, and I was busy looking.

* * *

“Never talk dirty,” Barnum said, cautioning me after hearing me pass a few foul words I’d picked up from the workmen who cleaned out the animal cages. “Think dirty all you want, but in public be polite.”

“Do you think dirty?” I asked.

“All the time,” he answered, gripping me with his dark gray eyes. “But I don’t go around boasting about it.”

He loomed above me with his great mop of swampy black hair. His face fleshy, the chin firm, the nose thick, lips wide and rubbery. He was under six feet, but there was so much fire and energy in him that he seemed taller than he was. He told me it would please him if I called him P. T. So I did. But in my thoughts, he was always Barnum—not Phineas, not P. T., not Mister Barnum, just Barnum, plain and simple. Because that’s who he was. That one word, it summed him up, it defined him, it was him, the word and the person one and the same.

Occasionally we appeared together onstage, dancing side by side, in tandem, the same steps, each wearing a gray swallowtail and a high beaver hat, he twirling his big silver-topped cane, and I twirling my tiny one. And when the music came to a close, he would glide off the stage with me sitting on his shoulder.

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.

* * *

My father had been a carpenter, but it was a hard way to earn a living—less than ten dollars a week, repairing porches and barns. When Barnum found me, good money started coming our way, and my father, little by little, quit hammering. He and my mother stayed with me when I was in New York, and Barnum brought them along when he toured me through Europe, since I was so young.

In London, huge crowds wanted to see me, especially after Queen Victoria invited me to appear at Buckingham Palace. Three visits I had with her, and on one occasion she kissed me on the cheek, and, in an overzealous moment, took a quick nibble at one of my ears. My performances at the Egyptian Hall drew overflow crowds, and it was soon apparent that a Tom Thumb craze was developing. Tom Thumb paper dolls appeared in all sorts of shops. And there was a new sweet, the Tom Thumb Sugar Plum, which sold wildly. Onstage I danced my own version of the polka, and it became the new dance sensation of the season, everybody doing it, the Tom Thumb Polka. Barnum was strutting like a peacock.

But my father, my father. In the halls and theaters where I performed, he sold tickets at the door and handled other small jobs, too—and it was, for him, a muddy time. In Liverpool his wallet was stolen. In Bristol he lost his watch, and in London a bundle of his favorite shirts went to the laundry and never came back.

And there was something else, too. On those many occasions when I was invited into the presence of royalty, he was never part of that, nor was my mother—and I now understand that he must have felt terribly put off. My mother did feel snubbed, and said so, blaming Barnum. “Him, that uppity humbug. Thinks we’re not good enough for the high-and-mighty royalty!” She moaned and complained, and dealt with her frustration by rushing about from shop to shop and spending wildly.

But my father kept it all inside him. In London he took to the pubs, savoring the various brews, then he drifted into single-malt whiskies from the Highlands—and it became clear, even to my young eyes, that his drinking was becoming a problem.

* * *

During my busy days abroad, my sisters, Libbie and Frances Jane, were home, in Bridgeport, going to school and living with one of our aunts. I missed them. I remembered how they brushed their hair and talked endlessly about boys. And they sang—chirpy, zippy, rip-along songs that they made up, singing them into my ears while they tickled my feet and tossed me around.

Zootagataz, Zatagatooz—

Sometimes you win, often you lose,

But better to laugh, useless to cry—

Jump out of your shoes, leap high in the sky!

Sure, jump out of my shoes, that I could do. But the sky, that was something else. And Zatagatooz—I knew all about that. It was everything that was inside out and upside down, everything strange and hard to figure—things bent and curled, snarly and unexpected. Life is wrinkled, and it does confuse. Yet I came to see that sometimes, oddly, awkwardly, it could be fun—full of bonbons, galloping horses, cherry trees, and crowds of people applauding as if you were some kind of god, even though you were just you.

Toward the end of our first year abroad, Barnum took me off salary and made me a full partner, sharing equally in the profits. It was a windfall for my parents and they were more than pleased, as was I. But when we were alone in our hotel room, my mother nodded cynically. “See? See? He’s scared to death some other agent will steal us away from him.”

The money was bigger than my father had ever expected to see in his lifetime. But he was still drinking. There were days when he reached for a glass early, right after breakfast, and by noon he had an odd way of walking, as if afraid the floor might play a trick and suddenly leap up at him. But he stayed on his feet and went on drinking, sampling the different labels.

* * *

After a year in the British Isles, we departed in March and traveled to Paris. Barnum had brought my tutor along, Professor Kwink, mainly to prepare me for France. By the time we reached Paris, I could manage a bit of conversation in French, and was able to sprinkle my act with French jokes and French songs. The result was sheer magic. If the excitement in England had been a craze, what developed in France was nothing less than a mania.

I was Tom Pouce. On a busy boulevard in Paris, a new café opened, the Café Tom Pouce, with a life-size wooden statue of me above the door. King Louis Philippe invited me four times to the Tuileries and gave me a large emerald brooch encrusted with diamonds. In shop windows, there were Tom Pouce statues made of plaster—or of chocolate, or sugar. Someone wrote a play in which I performed, and I was made an honorary member of the Association des Artistes Dramatiques Française.

Barnum was ecstatic. My mother was happy. My father sampled all the French wines. Every night I went to bed exhausted. In many of my dreams, I spoke French, and often, when I woke, I wondered who I was, and where I was, and was afraid to close my eyes again.

After three months in Paris, I had long stands in many other cities across France. Then Barnum brought us down into the south of France, where we rested for a while and enjoyed the atmosphere—trees, orchards, vineyards thick with ripening grapes.

A week of that, then we crossed over into Spain, to Pamplona, where Queen Isabella was eager to see me. Three afternoons I spent with her. Beautiful brown eyes, she had. She was fourteen, and I was seven, yet we felt very comfortable with each other, as if she weren’t a queen and I not a dwarf who was getting more than my share of public attention.

She showed me the palace, the large halls filled with paintings, statues, and wall hangings. And the chapel. Then she took me by the hand and brought me into her garden, to show me the camellias and the gardenias. And the flash of excitement in her eyes as she drew me farther along and showed me the purple rose that had been named for her, the ‘Rosa Reina Isabella.’ How does one forget such moments? How does one survive them?

On a Saturday afternoon she brought me to the bullfights, and, much to my astonishment, she picked me up and sat me on her lap. What an excitement that was, to be so close. “You will see much better from here,” she said.

And for sure, I did. The picadors parading on their horses, then the banderilleros, and the matadors in their fancy costumes, embroidered with silver and gold. The matadors paused in front of us, bowing to the Queen. Three matadors, stern and ready, eager to go one-on-one against a bull. And the bulls, in a pen at the edge of the field, snorting and restless.

I enjoyed the pageantry, the colors, the brass band. But soon enough, when I saw the matador waving his cape, inviting the bull to charge, I felt the tension.

Many times it charged, and when it was worn down, in went the matador’s sword, and the bull fell dead to the ground. The crowd crying olé, olé.

“Such a brave bull,” Isabella said. “It knew how to die. And the matador, such courage—always an inch away from death.”

That’s what it was about, I realized—about death, and that bothered me, because then especially, as I sat on Isabella’s lap, death was not something I wanted to think about. After all the traveling, and all the places I’d seen—palaces, cathedrals, bridges, rivers, thatched roofs, the different ways of talking and living, I had decided that I hated death, and wanted nothing to do with it.

While that lifeless bull was dragged from the arena, I felt that if death were something tangible, something I could see and walk up to, I would kick it in the shins and set fire to its underwear.

* * *

From Spain, we traveled back up to the north of France, then crossed the border into Belgium. We had a long stay in Brussels, where I met with King Leopold and Queen Louise. Then we toured through several nearby cities, and soon we were fully two years into our tour.

Barnum brought us back across the Channel, for another yearlong sweep through the British Isles. He advertised it as my Farewell Tour. The crowds were still there for me, and since these were my final appearances, I concluded each performance with a song that was popular at the time—

When other lips and other hearts

Their tales of love shall tell,

There may, perhaps, in such a scene,

Some recollection be

Of days that have as happy been—

Then you’ll remember me!

And yes—remember me!

After those three exciting years in Europe, my father found himself presiding over more wealth than he’d ever hoped to see. He set some of it aside for my future, and with another portion he built a new house for the family—a substantial three-story place with a garden, a veranda, and a high cupola from which you could look across the tops of the trees and see, in the distance, the schooners on Long Island Sound. There was a special apartment for me on the ground floor, with low windows and small furniture, and space for a dwarf piano and a dwarf billiard table. My two sisters had their weddings in that house, and those were happy times, full of excitement.

But my father, with his bottles from Scotland. My sense, always, was that he was openly proud of me, boasting that I was his son—but underneath, he was suffering. It must have been hell for him to see that I, so young, a kid, a singing-and-dancing brat, was able to pull in so much more money than he could ever make doing hard work with a hammer. It just tore him to pieces. What kept him going were those bottles from the Highlands, the morning nip and the evening sup, and the many swigs between. Too tipsy at times, shouting at the walls and quarreling with the furniture. But despite all that, he was a good father, gentle and always there for us. And still he sang, digging into the old tunes, “Annie Laurie,” and “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep.” And his other favorite, “Comin’ thro’ the Rye.”

Once, I remember, before I became Tom Thumb and before we had that spacious new house, he came home with a large wooden ball painted gray and blue. We sat on the floor, rolling it back and forth to each other. It seemed that he was a happy man that day, and I, too, felt happy, waiting for the ball as it rolled toward me. It was one of those special moments, a moment that is always there for me—just the two of us, rolling the ball back and forth.

* * *

The days and months flipped by, and suddenly, at seventeen, I found myself in a year that was like a box of broken crackers—and near the end of that year, at the bottom of the box, nothing but maggoty crumbs. That was the year my father’s drinking became such a problem that his brothers, my uncles, gathered around and persuaded him to go into an asylum to take the cure. It would be months, we knew, and it wouldn’t be easy, but he would come out a happier man.

That’s what we thought, and hoped for. But only three weeks after he went in, his heart gave out, and we lost him. It was crushing. Impossible. Zatagatooz and Zootagataz wrapped up together in a lopsided nightmare. Why, I wondered. Why?

It wasn’t just the suddenness that caught me, but the finality—the swift, irreversible shutdown. It had never crossed my mind, when he went into the asylum, that he might not come home.

My mother used to sing—old songs from long ago—but I haven’t heard her sing for quite some time. She says the worst thing that ever happened was that Barnum brought us to Europe, because it was there, in London, in Dublin, in Paris, in Brussels, that my father quit drinking beer and started with whisky, and it ruined him.

She keeps a picture of him on the ledge above the fireplace, in an oak frame. He’s standing beside an empty chair in a photographer’s studio, one hand resting on the back of the chair. So young he was, so fine and good-looking, and when I think of that picture, I wonder what might have been running through his mind at the moment when the shutter clicked. Did he have even the faintest suspicion that he would someday afford the new big house that he put up for us? Could he possibly have foreseen that Queen Victoria, by having me to the palace so many times, would contribute hugely to my success? And, in his darkest imaginings, did he have even the vaguest notion that he would drink himself to death?

After my father passed on, Barnum, in a way, became my father, taking care of me, showing me how to handle money and property. But in fact he had been a father to me even before that, ever since he discovered me. He chose my clothes, and told me what to say when I met Queen Victoria and all of the other royals. He fed me the puns and jokes that I used onstage, and taught me the songs that I sang. And he showed me around, taking me to Brady’s for the photograph exhibitions, to Brooks Brothers for my street clothes, to Genin the hatter, to the Park Theatre to hear Ole Bull playing his violin.

Sometimes I thought of him as a father, and sometimes I thought of him as God. There were times, too, when I thought of him as the Devil, and times when he seemed just an ungainly, overblown clown, eager for the day when every tooth in his head would be Tiffany gold. Somehow, all of those things were mixed up in him—they were part of him, braided into his personality.

* * *

“Life is a road,” my father used to say, “you move from here to there, from yesterday to tomorrow. Hope for a good horse and a good wagon, and pray the damn wheels don’t fall off.”

A road, yes, that’s what it was. And if you’re a dwarf, twenty-five inches tall, and life, your life, is a journey, how do you make your way on this busy, bumbling, bombastic highway? How to avoid being trampled and crushed?

Day and night I was still out there, on the move, and wondering—what next? What lies in wait around the far bend? And where, where, was the woman whose perfume I caught a whiff of in a dream one night? I touched her and she was full of wild laughter, with liquid eyes and lips full of magic, and long fingernails that carved deep into my chest. Was she, too, out there on that same crazy road, searching, and waiting?

And the war that my father had talked about, the war that was waiting to happen—it was nowhere in sight, but you could hear it rustling around, grumbling in the grass, and you knew it was never far away.

About The Author

Photograph by Stephen Rinaldi

Nicholas Rinaldi is the author of three previous novels (Bridge Fall Down, The Jukebox Queen of Malta, and Between Two Rivers) and three collections of poetry. His work has been widely reviewed and earned many awards in the United States and abroad. With his wife, Jacqueline, he currently resides in Connecticut. Please visit his website at NicholasRinaldi.net.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (July 21, 2015)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476727332

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Raves and Reviews

“Nicholas Rinaldi is a writer I’ve admired for some time, but his latest — The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb — took me by surprise. It’s a stunning tour of an era, an American psychological landscape, with its bravura and tragic headstrong drive to command more and more of the world in every sense. Rinaldi doesn’t really have to make it up. The absurd history leaps at him. But he catches it, shapes and gives it body and language. This is an achievement — a lively, instructive romp that tells us as much about our time as ‘back then.’”

– Jay Parini, author of "The Last Station" and "The Passages of H.M."

"Imaginatively blends fact and fiction... Top-notch entertainment."

– Publishers Weekly

“On one level Rinaldi has written a lively historical novel about Tom Thumb. But this book is so much more than that. It is about that most human of conditions, those trembling moments when hot passion and the desire for love just seem too big and overwhelming for our puny bodies trying to contain such powerful emotions.”

– Richard C. Morais, author of "The Hundred-Foot Journey" and "Buddhaland Brooklyn"

"In exquisite counterpoint, Rinaldi's book makes history live again in accounts of the Civil War and that of Barnum and the unforgettable General Tom Thumb."

– Sue Walker, Alabama Poet Laureate, Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, University of South Alabama

"Rollicking. . .Rinaldi also illuminates the Civil War backdrop to great effect. . . history lovers will find plenty here to appreciate."

– Booklist

“Fast-paced and brightly colored…A cast of thousands, daring escapes, sweeping vistas: Rinaldi does his idea justice with swift pacing and spectacle.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“Charts a harrowing tour through the Civil War…a vivid story.”

– Connecticut Post

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