Willowdean Dickson does not shy away from the description ‘fat’: “It’s not a cuss word. It’s not an insult. At least it’s not when I say it.” She has always been comfortable in her skin, but then she meets Bo, the summer before junior year; she is attracted to him but feels ashamed of her body, and the relationship fizzles out. Still grieving over the death of her Aunt Lucy, and struggling to work out her relationship with her mother, Will decides to enter the local beauty pageant and a group of nontraditional pageant girls join her. But this causes a split with her best friend, Ellen, and it becomes clear that they have been drifting apart.
I spent several enjoyable hours in Will’s head. She is entertaining, and occasionally laugh out loud funny, as she finds her way through the tricky world of being a teenager – friendships, boyfriends, parents and herself. The book centers on Will’s bond with Ellen, and its development and maturity, but there is also growth in her connection with Bo and, particularly, her former pageant queen mother. Though the book isn’t really about pageants, it gives an affectionate behind the scenes look at the importance of such events in small town Texas.
Will is honest about her body, and the restrictions she imposes on herself because of it: “There have been times when I really stopped myself from doing something special. All because I was scared someone might look at me and decide I wasn’t good enough.” Her aunt died young because of her weight, and Will becomes aware of how Lucy’s body constricted her life: “There are so many things that Lucy never did. Not because she couldn’t, but because she told herself she couldn’t and no one made her believe otherwise.” And this awareness is what leads her to enter the pageant.
I really like that the resolution to Will’s story is not that she loses weight, indeed, other than the occasional hint from her mother, which makes her sad rather than motivated, there is no mention of dieting. Similarly her pageant cohort do not try to change themselves to fit in, but rather attempt to expand what pageant beauty means.
Dumplin’ is a delectable read that will be appreciated by teens who don’t fit societal norms, as well as Dolly Parton fans.
Thanks to Balzer+Bray and Edelweiss for the review copy.