I read the novel before watching the recent film adaptation, the daughter watched it without having read it. If you want to see the film (and you should), do yourself a favor and see it before reading the book, but please read the book.
Hardcover, 384 pages. YA Fiction. Ages 13-16.
Epigraph: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”—Dolly Parton
Willowdean “Dumplin’” Dickson holds two rare distinctions in young adult fiction as being a heroine of her own story who is comfortable in her own skin and who is fat.
“I hate seeing fat girls on TV or in movies, because the only way the world seems to be okay with putting a fat person on camera is if they’re miserable with themselves or if they’re the jolly best friend. Well, I’m neither of those things.”
Her aunt Lucy—and Dolly Parton—had a lot to do with Willowdean’s self-confidence growing up. But Willowdean isn’t done growing up and her aunt Lucy has died. As her sophomore year of public high school ends and she’s heading into summer, the “private school boy” she has a crush on at work seems to return her interest. Her and her best friend since forever, Ellen aka El, have started to drift apart. And she’s been left alone with a mom she doesn’t know what to do with, grieving the mother who raised her.
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t play dumb. I see it every time you turn on a weight-loss show or tell me about your friend who lost a ton of weight on the latest fad diet or when you inventory our pantry every time you come home to make sure I haven’t eaten the whole goddamn thing.”
Her chin quivers and the possibility of her crying at this exact moment fills me with rage. “I want you to be happy.”
“I am happy,” I say, every syllable perfectly even. I don’t know how much truth there is to that, but I can’t imagine that fifteen or even fifty pounds would change how much I miss Lucy, how confused I am by Bo, or the growing distance between me and El.
“But that’s what you think ‘cause you don’t know better. You’re missing out on so much.” She takes a step toward me. “Boys and dating. That kind of stuff.”
I scrub my hands down my face. “You have got to be kidding me. News flash, Mom: a man will not cure my troubles.”
Willowdean’s mother Rosie is Clover City’s Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant 1997. In recent years, she runs the local pageant. Otherwise, Rosie hasn’t left their small Texas town, works at the retirement home, and now that her older sister Lucy is gone, is a single-parent. Willowdean and her mother keep to their own business and few things interrupt that rhythm: like when Willowdean enters the pageant.
“Why does it have to be that? Why do you have to make that assumption, Mom? How come I can’t enter the pageant without it being a joke or revenge?”
“If you don’t’ sign that form, you’re saying I’m not good enough. You’re saying that most every girl in that room right now is prettier and more deserving than me. That’s what you’re telling me.”
The fundamentals of Willowdean and her mother’s conflict is that her mother can’t seem to see Willowdean as someone other than fat. And, Rosie, like a lot of people in our culture view it: fat people aren’t deserving, and are less than on the value points. Dumplin’ talks a lot about deserving and access.
“There’s something about swimsuits that make you think you’ve got to earn the right to wear them. And that’s wrong. Really, the criteria is simple. Do you have a body? Put a swimsuit on it.”
For Willowdean and her BFF El, Ellen can’t seem to see Willowdean as fat at all. And while one first response may be: isn’t that a good thing? It isn’t for a few reasons. It means that Ellen is failing to see all of who Willowdean is. Too, it means she doesn’t see her own thinness either; e.g. El appears mystified that Willowdean didn’t come work with her at the mall, in a clothing store called Sweet 16, where the clothes cap at size 12. Then there is the part where El thinks she’s joining the pageant to support Willowdean’s cause.
Because Willowdean is not without her own issues, her response to finding out El signed up is tinged with envy. She isn’t jealous of El’s thinness, it’s because she knew her mother had approached El in years past to participate in the pageant. El, like other pageant participants, seem more acceptable daughter-material than she does and that hurts. Failures to communicate and apologize adequately mean El disappears into a friendship with her co-worker Callie. Callie who tells El that Willowdean has been holding her back socially; and tells Willowdean that El-bell is better off without her fat friend.
It is a credit to the novel that Willowdean reflects on the fact that she has been possessive of El (not wanting to add a third or fourth friend to the pairing) and that she hasn’t been as a good a friend to Ellen. Ellen is open to sharing her anxieties about when will it be a good time to have sex with her boyfriend Tim, and Willowdean hadn’t shared her first kiss or her anxieties about letting a boy touch her back fat or waist. (And when she does, El lists the parts of her that make her self-conscious when touched.) What Willowdean does not do is entertain the idea that her being fat is a detriment to their relationship as Callie implies.
But Willowdean is not ignorant about how culture works. Maybe El isn’t embarrassed or bullied for having a fat friend, but a boy might be. This fear is compounded when it seems Bo, from work, is eager to make-out with her behind the dumpster or in a parking lot, but tells her he shouldn’t be dating. Good for Willowdean for not wanting to be a secret; and bad when he starts going to her school the following year.
With junior year comes the interest of a football player, Mitch—his interest, not so much hers. But they begin to hangout, and he likes her. He’s nice, but doesn’t she and Mitch deserve more than her settling? The thing is, she can’t shake her feelings for Bo, and once Bo decides he’s willing to actually pursue a relationship, the shit is about to hit the fan aka we’re approaching the climax of the novel.
While Willowdean is not interacting with Bo, she’s with Mitch. When she’s separated from El, she is hanging out with the other unconventional beauty pageant contestants who signed up because she did: Millie is fatter than Willowdean, Hannah has horse teeth, and Amanda has uneven legs. Hannah would burn it all down, and Amanda is there for Millie. All Millie was doing was looking for permission to sign up, unlike Willowdean and the other two, she loves pageants and is serious about trying to win. Theirs is a humorous posse (yes to the sleepover and the drag queen show) and a growth opportunity for Willowdean.
Hannah: “You don’t deserve to win anything or be in any pageant until you make the effort and do the work. maybe fat girls or girls with limps or girls with big teeth don’t usually win beauty pageants. Maybe that’s not the norm. but the only way to change that is to be present. We can’t expect the same things these other girls do until we demand it. Because no one’s lining up to give us shit, Will.”
The thing about Mitch is that he does what options do, he helps Willowdean figure out what she wants in a relationship with a boy. The thing about the unlikely girls are the ways they offer relationships that El maybe can’t. Of course, Willowdean can still make up with El and keep her new friends; she isn’t going to date two boys.
A note on the boys: Mitch and Bo—and Tim, to some extent—are offered some emotional depth and vulnerability. I appreciate how Murphy handled that first kiss scene. Neither does she pit the boys against each other, who actually have a lot in common. No team “whomever” here. If you are looking for some sensitive masculinity this is a good novel for it.
Marcus mumbles something about PMS and to my surprise, from the kitchen, Bo says, “Why can’t she just be having a shitty day? You don’t need to make up some bullshit reason why.”
Meanwhile, as director of the pageant, Rosie is hands-off Willowdean’s non-serious participation; except she helps Willowdean get past the preliminary talent try-out; except she buys a dress and tries to fit it to Willowdean—it’s a beautiful dress; except she stays up to help with a last-minute required piece Willowdean needed. These are areas Rosie feels she can participate—areas pertaining to the pageant. You see Rosie navigating a much narrower cultural-script than Willowdean, and you appreciate Willowdean’s confidence and determination to demand more for herself. Murphy writes a resolution that offers healing and relationship between mother and daughter without compromising them both, sparing Willowdean from appearing petulant or overwrought and not dismissing Rosie’s ridiculous behaviors, and helping her with that dress anyway. Murphy writes the same kind of focus for Willowdean and Ellen; and her and Bo.
Really that ending yields the strongest overlap between the three relational conflicts Willowdean experiences in the novel. It seems unusual narratively, but not unusual realistically that significant characters would fade into the background or disappear for a chapter/week or two. They would always be on Willowdean’s mind though. And that it all comes together in the end does not signal a return to her own skin. It’s of note that she had already made that return beforehand—but not without a reminder of who she is and wants to be, thanks to new friends…and Dolly Parton.
Julie Murphy writes a funny, charming and empowering novel in Dumplin. She’s thoughtful and smart about it; she challenges and entertains…all marks of a great storyteller. It was worth the risk to return to high school drama for this one; and one I think the daughter would’ve risked reading while recently living high school. An adult character laments, “I wish I would’ve had friends that were going after things they weren’t supposed to have.” These are the friends and stories Julie Murphy writes, pushing back against the cultural scripts where few, if any, are allowed/deserving to be who they really are. Who wouldn’t want to read a novel like that?
Recommended for all the libraries, and not just those belonging to female readers; for readers of contemporary fiction, and humor; for book clubs whether young or adult.