Some books don’t just get a point across or try to sell you on a main character. Some books convince you there is good in the world, and people are still capable of respecting each other. “Maybe because you don’t always have to win a pageant to wear a crown.”
“Dumplin’” by Julie Murphy is about a 16-year-old girl named Willodean Dickson, or Will as her friends call her, in Clover City, Texas that is overweight. Her story has several different complexities that cause her to question her happiness.
As the book begins, Will loses her Aunt Lucy, who was also obese, and who was her best friend and greatest ally against the world. Lucy had always been the buffer for Will and her mother’s strained relationship. After Lucy passes, her mother consistently ignores her pleads to stop cleaning out her aunt’s old room, which has become a sort of haven for Will.
She begins working at a fast food place called Harpy’s over the summer when she is out of school and meets a guy named Bo. Everyone thinks Bo is gorgeous, and he ends up starting a relationship with Willodean. Although Willodean suspects she is in love with Bo, and even though Bo treats her well, she has a lingering sense of unhappiness and is repulsed at the idea of Bo touching her because of her “back fat.” This causes her to end her relationship with him as soon as school starts back.
Will’s mother, Rosie, is a washed-up beauty queen, whose life centers around the pageant that she won decades ago. She consistently lets Will know that she is overweight and that she wishes Will could “slim down.” To combat the feeling of not amounting to enough in her families eyes and her own eyes, she enters the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant. She and a band of other students that get made fun of for various other reasons at school also enter and they begin a friendship.
At the end of the book, Will doesn’t win. None of her friends blow away the competition. Stories that focus on people’s differences can often feel strained, like the books are trying to relate to audiences or create a perfect “happy ending” for their audiences, but this book stresses that a happy ending is different for every character. The ending of the book makes “Dumplin’” feel normal and real. The book has the goal of realization for the most part, realization that people are different and that is not only good but should be celebrated. People shouldn’t be put down or scolded for their differences.
Willodean isn’t a perfect person, which is one of the reasons this book is so relatable to a young adult audience. It doesn’t feel like Murphy has tried to water down Willodean’s emotions, meaning that she mimics a real 16-year-old. She is trying to navigate having relationships, fighting with her mom, and trying to feel worthy. She screws up often in this book, but she is also the type of heroine that apologizes for her mistakes, making her likable. Overall, she is a wonderful role model for people who are looking to be themselves.
Music is incredibly important to this novel. Scattered through the book, remnants of her aunt make themselves present when Will needs them most. Mostly these come in the form of Dolly Parton references. Different songs that her aunt loved before she passed away set a tone for the book that is bittersweet but also empowering.
It will be interesting to see how this book converts over into movie format and how music will accompany the story. Currently, Dolly Parton has signed on to work on the movie as well, which will hopefully mean that the authenticity will be kept.
This book is special because it doesn’t make the pageant winners and contestants monsters. Only the people in the book who are really “enemies” to the girls are the ones that make fun of them. Murphy has put special emphasis on humanizing everyone and putting importance on the worth of people in general.
One really interesting part of this book is the role of Rosie, Will’s mother. She is unsurprisingly hard on Will because of her weight and their lack of common interests, but she is hard to hate. She works at an elderly care center and at the beginning of the book Willodean puts her down for this. However, Mille, one of the other girls that has entered the pageant despite being made fun of, points out that just because the women who have won the pageant don’t normally take jobs that society deems “amazing” or they never leave Clover City doesn’t stop them from being great people who are also worthy of love and acceptance. They are homemakers, teachers and carry many other titles that are extremely important to their communities and they should be uplifted as well.