Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

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dumplinDumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Balzer + Bray, due out in September, 2015.

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.

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Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

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Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
Balzer + Bray, 2017.

Eulogy Beach, MS still shows signs of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago.White high school senior Ramona “Blue” Leroux, her older sister, Hattie, and father are still living in the FEMA issued trailer. Ms Murphy’s novel sympathetically portrays life on the margins: Ramona works two jobs to help her family scrape by and save a little for herself, but now Hattie is pregnant and her feckless boyfriend is moving in, making Ramona feel more trapped than ever.

Ramona Blue, nicknamed for her love of the ocean, is a wonderful character and Ms Murphy makes her thoughtful and credible. Self-described as “the white trash lesbian from the trailer park,” she stands out in all respects – over 6’ tall with blue hair and one of the few out people in town. Her allegiance to her family gives her a sense of responsibility which she shoulders lightly and with goodwill.

At the start of senior year, she’s still entwined in a romance with closeted holiday visitor Grace who now seems to be distancing herself. And then Freddie, a “light-skinned black boy” who used to be a regular summer visitor and close friend returns. Freddie is a lot of things that Ramona isn’t – well-off, secure, and with a sense of his future. When Ramona starts swimming at the Y with him she finds it fills a need she didn’t know she had and her friendship with Freddie starts to develop into something more.

Murphy does a great job of peopling Ramona’s world with believable, appealing characters. Her family, though down on its luck, is tight-knit and supportive, and her friend group, though small, has the sort of charm and wit that is common in YA novels but is not usually portrayed so believably. Her relationship with Freddie also allows Ramona to consider “what being black in the South might mean.”

Over the year, Ramona learns that just because something is not bad, that doesn’t make it good and she finds a direction and purpose in her life that is about just her and her choice.

Ms Murphy has a knack of creating quirky offbeat characters that engage and charm and can expand the reader’s view of ‘normal’. Though I didn’t love this quite as much as Dumplin’ (2015), it was still a very pleasurable read.

Thanks to Balzer + Bray and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

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