Dumplin' by Julie Murphy

I have been hearing nothing but awesome things about Julie Murphy's Dumplin' ever since, man, ALA Midwinter? Before then? I don't know. But it's about dang time somebody got a book with a fat protagonist right, and Murphy nailed it. I mean nailed. It.

See, Dumplin' isn't a Problem Novel (Great Old Ones, how I hate that term). The protagonist isn't perfect--in fact, she does some pretty mean and stupid things. Yeah, like every teenager in the history of ever.  She is sassy and smart and very vocal about her body. But one of the best things about Dumplin' is that it got me really interested in Dolly Parton. Seriously. And now I'm hooked and I can't stop because DOLLY!

That's pursuant to the book, but let's talk a little bit more about the book. We'll have time for Dolly later.

Willowdean Dickson lives in Clover City Texas with her mother, a former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant winner. Momma is all about running the pageant now. It's her liiiiiiiiiife. Point of pride? She can still fit into her winning gown, even after having Willowdean as a bit of a surprise baby. Will and her mom aren't active antagonists; rather, there's a tense bubble around what they don't say to each other about Will's size. And about Lucy. I'll let Will tell you what happened.
"At the age of thirty-six, weigning in at four hundred and ninety-eight pounds, Lucy died. She died alone of a massive heart attack, while sitting on the couch, watching one of her shows. No one saw her die. But then again, no one outside of this house really saw her live. And now there's no one here to remember her."
And now Will's mom wants to get rid of Lucy's things and turn her old bedroom into a craft room. Will is not amused.

Plus, there's some serious love drama going on. Will's best friend Ellen, their friendship created and cemented over a mutual adoration of Miss Dolly Parton, matter-of-factly states that she wants to have sex with her boyfriend, Tim. At the same time, Bo, über-hot cook at the fast food joint where Will works, is ... talking to her? Paying her attention? Hoo boy, wouldn't she like to kiss those cherry-sucker-stained lips, but what would a guy like Bo want with a fat girl like her? But things get steamier and it's clear that Bo really likes ... loves? Will. Her. The way she is. And the thought is scarier than anything else. "I won't be ridiculed.  I won't be one-half of the couple who everyone stares at and asks, How did she get him?"

I think that is seriously one of the most authentic reactions I've read in literature in a very long time. It's not that Will doesn't care about Bo--she does--but when society looks at your size first and your face second and then maybe takes the time to ask your name, you have been taught that you are not good enough. You are not skinny enough for Bo. And how would that make him look? How would you endure the taunts? How would he? Would it just doom you?

Now, when I was reading, I wanted to say, "Willowdean, that boy loves you.  He is not a tease and he's not cruel."  But I am speaking from a place of privilege.  I am not fat.  I was chunky in high school, but I didn't care about anything except grades back then so I was not interested in a boyfriend (plus I was two years younger than everyone else which is a massive gap). But I do think Will's reaction is very realistic. All her life, she's been made to feel less-than because of her more-than size.  And now she's got something good. Really good. Isn't it just like life to take it away?

And so begins Miss Willowdean's self-destructive hate-spiral. She pushes Bo away, has an epic fight with Ellen, and keeps telling herself that she's right. She's right for being mean to Ellen because she deserved it. She's right for pushing Bo away because she doesn't deserve him.
"My whole mind has turned against me. Every time I blink, all I see are my flaws ... Before this summer, I'd always been happy in this skin. Proud even. But then came Bo. Since that first time we made out in the cab of his truck, I've felt myself cracking. Something about the way his skin felt against mine drew all these doubts to the surface that I didn't even know I had."  
And as a final middle finger-up to the world, she enters the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet competition and starts a chain of events that's wild and funny and heartbreaking and uplifting.

Suddenly, all of the other girls who are outcasts join Will in her quest for the Blue Bonnet tiara. There's Millie, "the one I am ashamed to admit I've spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse. I'm fat, but Millie's the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants ... She wears shirts with puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way." Plus Millie's BFF Amanda, who has uneven legs and has to wear corrective shoes. And then there's Hannah Perez, a tough-talking, take-no-prisoners girl who's constantly taunted about her teeth.

On their wild ride, they go to a Dolly Parton-themed drag show, get walking tips from a drag queen, lie to Millie's ultra-conservative parents, and generally toss the whole pageant upside down. Atta girls.

Okay, look, guys, this book is far more complex than I'm (clumsily) making it out to be. It's a frank discussion about what it means to be fat. It's a portrait of a girl who isn't perfect and isn't always the nicest but who realizes that she needs to make things better. It's body-positivity at it's best and most real--because seriously, nobody loves their body all the time.  t's an ode to Texan living and to being unapologetically you, à la Dolly. I have all these quotes marked because they're utterly hilarious but if I listed them all I'd a) take up way too much space and b) ruin them for you. Y'all need to read this. Stat.

I was so relieved and happy to read this book. As someone who struggles with self-image, I needed this. So much. And then, I got curious about Dolly Parton. I noticed that Nine to Five was on Netflix and ... boom. Insta-Dolly-love. The fact that the movie is pee-yourself-hilarious doesn't hurt either. I've been easing into her music and although I wouldn't say I'm a country western fan, I think I might be a Dolly fan. And let us all remember these words of wisdom:

"There is no higher achievement for a southern woman than the ability to eat barbecue and walk away stain free." Amen, Willowdean. Amen.


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