Lucia Zarate

Written by Cecilia Velastegui
Review by Patricia O'Reilly

This is a gem of a book, exquisitely produced and poetically written. No surprise that the author is an award-winner. It tells the poignant story of Mexican-born Lucía Zárate, who at 20 inches tall and just four pounds in weight remains the world’s smallest woman. Lucía made her debut at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. For a few short years, when performing midgets were a popular entertainment, she was the toast of America and England for her coquettish singing and dancing performances.

We are led through the story by the voice of Zoila, Lucía’s madrina (godmother) and self-appointed protector, who educates and cares for the tiny 13-year-old as though she were her own. Zoila is a wonderful figment of Velástegui’s imagination – she is from Paplanta, the vanilla-growing region of Mexico, rich with tales of the wrath of the chaneque (evil spirit). Recognising that Lucía was clever, Zoila teaches her English and educates her in current affairs, but mostly she cares for her. Her charge has a feisty temper, a sense of her own worth and a love of beautiful clothes and jewellery.

The narrative tells of the exploitation of the vulnerable with the connivance of poverty-stricken parents, ruthless managers and agents taking advantage of their charges and currying favour with the press. It is full of period details and locations, a seedy backstage look at the front-of-house glamour

The text is sprinkled with real people of the time, such as Tom Thumb, the tiny man who became a millionaire and committed suicide. Reading, you hope against hope that the outcome will be happy – that Zoila will realise her dream of spiriting Lucía back to Mexico…

A pleasure as the book is to read, in my opinion it would be improved with tighter editing.