I have had Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy on my shelves since last summer when I was given a proof copy at work. It has been sitting there unread ever since and every time my eye would pass over it I would think to myself, “that one is next.” But then it kept not being next. Last week I made it a point to put everything else on pause and read it since Murphy is giving a talk that I wanted to attend. I am so glad I was finally able to dive into these pages because once I did I could not put them down.
Willowdean Dickson lives in a small Texas town that is so accurately cultivated, I kept expecting to encounter someone from my own high school within the pages. Be it football or beauty queens, most small towns have a focus like nothing else on hype. In Dumplin’ the latter is the be all end all of not only the town but of Willowdean’s life. You see, her mother is in charge of the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant (a title which she herself won back in the day) and as such, Will’s life is overrun year after year by glitter and sewing machines as their house becomes ground zero for pageant planning. Until now, Willowdean has not thought too much about the pageant except for maybe that her mother cares a little more for the glitz and glam than she does about her daughter. But that hasn’t really bothered her too much as she’s left to go about her life without the pressure of worrying about wether she fits in an evening dress or can define what her “talent” is. Until now, that is…because now, Willowdean is tired of being the fat best firend and the dumpy sidekick. She’s tired of the school bully picking on not just her but other members of the lower social tier. In a decision that she makes concrete by telling her best friend Ellen (so now she can’t back out) Willowdean is going to enter the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant. Not because she wants to prance around on stage being the center of attention. Not because she thinks she has a shot at winning. Not even to have something to put on her college transcript. It is a decision she makes for herself; a decision that takes the power away from everyone who has discounted her her entire life.
What I loved about Willowdean was that she didn’t wallow in self pity or cop out of things because of she was ashamed of herself. In fact, one of the first places we go with Willowdean and Ellen is a swimming pool and she dons her swimsuit without any apology and gets in that cool cool water.
Dumplin’ was such an easy read because Willowdean is so charming. I was able to relate to her on a level I was surprised by as I too have been on the receiving end of teasing about things I can’t help about myself. Willowdean is strong and stubborn and so encouraging to others.
When a group of fellow misfits (a girl who wears corrective shoes, a girl who is mercilessly teased because of her teeth, and the only lesbian in their high school) join Willowdean in her pageant mission she is shocked that she has become a source of inspiration. She is completely unaware of the impact she has on those around her. These girls develop a bond that is deeper than simply being pageant buddies. They band together and support each other when there is no one else to tell their secrets to, no one else to confide their worries in. This is an aspect of the story which I absolutely loved. Yes, the main plot point driving the story is a beauty pageant, but it is about so much more than that!
Throughout the story we experience several firsts with Willowdean that do a great job in taking the reader back to those nerve-wracking days of self doubt known as high school. We are with Will when she receives her first kiss and when she is asked on her first date. We are with her to experience her shock that those two events occur with two separate boys and the self-conscious fear she feels when one of them kisses her and slides his hand down her back (“Beautiful,” he says. “Fat,” I think.). We are there when she fights with her best friend and when she attends her first drag show (something that none of the girls hope their parents find out about). She is an incredibly well rounded (zero pun intended) character and the empathy I was able to feel towards her warmed my heart. I really enjoyed getting to know Willowdean Dixon who like her idol Dolly Parton decides “live big or go home” are words to live by.
Definitely recommend this book to fans of Rainbow Rowell. I hope Julie Murphy continues to write because I cannot wait to meet her next knock out lead.