Fast-paced and brightly colored, Rinaldi’s novel is a portrait of Civil War America told from the perspective of the nation’s smallest “military” hero.
The man whom the circus impresario P.T. Barnum decorated with a martial title and named Tom Thumb remained less than 25 inches high until his teens and never grew much taller than 35 inches. This novel traces his early life working with Barnum and his marriage to 32-inch-tall Lavinia Warren. We follow the couple on their honeymoon, beginning with a reception in Lincoln’s White House and continuing across the war-torn United States and Canada. A cast of thousands, daring escapes, sweeping vistas: Rinaldi does his idea justice with swift pacing and spectacle. Less pleasingly, the hero and heroine are two-dimensional commentators on the history through which they live, and knowledgeable readers will be frustrated by historical inaccuracies, most of which seems slapdash rather than purposeful. In an unfortunate shortcut, Rinaldi gives us black characters speaking in dialect, as Tom Thumb likely would have had he written a memoir, but he doesn’t earn it; he pays scant attention to the diversity of white speech in the 19th century, and indeed, his white characters carry on in nearly 21st-century style. Perhaps, given the forward rush of this novel, it was hoped that such things would speed by too quickly to be noted.
For the most part, the reading experience does produce the flashy pleasure of a Barnum act, with cardboard sets and blarney unapologetically on display.