Willowdean Dickson – a.k.a. Dumplin’ – is fat. She knows it and she’s okay with it. At least until she begins a confusing relationship with her co-worker Bo, her best friend Ellen starts having sex, and pageant season comes around again. Feeling lost and alone, especially since her aunt Lucy’s passing, Willowdean comes up with an idea. She’ll enter the Clover City beauty pageant and prove that she has just as much right to be in it as any other girl. She’ll face judgement from her peers, her friends, and even her mother but if she backs down, she might never regain her confidence. Partnered with a few other unlikely contestants, Will aims to go big or go home.
The body positive message this book promised was what convinced me to pick it up. There’s a lot of talk about body positivity online, and even some movements in the fashion and beauty industries to make things more inclusive, so I’m glad to see writers taking on the cause as well.
Julie Murphy has done an exceptional job creating a smart, funny, thoughtful, and strong female character. Any girl – or really any person – who’s been through or is going through high school should understand Willowdean’s struggle with self-confidence. Being pressured by society, being taunted for one’s appearance, seeking acceptance, and feeling left behind and inadequate are all common issues – especially for highs school students. Dumplin’ illustrates these struggles and acknowledges that it’s okay to feel not okay, but everyone deserves to feel happy – from the twiggy girls to the fat girls, from the popular to the loners.
The novel has a strong cast of characters with Willowdean, of course, at the forefront. Though the novel is told from Willowdean’s perspective, Murphy never makes her seem infallible. She makes mistake and messes up her relationships, but with the help of others she learns from her errors and that’s what makes her both relatable and admirable. Next there’s Hannah, Amanda, and Millie – Willowdean’s fellow ‘unconventional’ pageant contestants. They are at times more positive, more organized, and more intelligent than Willowdean and their inclusion makes Willowdean’s pageant plan go beyond size. Of course, there’s also Ellen. Ellen is the kind of friend many girls would want and the conflict between Willowdean and Ellen adds a realistic sense of high stakes to Willowdean’s efforts to regain confidence.
While the girls really carry this story, the boys are also generally positive influences on Willowdean’s life. Besides the one bully, none of the guys fall into the stereotypical douchey teen jock category, which is refreshing. While a boy is (kind of) the reason for Willowdean’s lack of self-esteem, Murphy avoids having her protagonist act for said boy, instead allowing Willowdean to act for her own benefit – to make herself feel better. I believe that is something more girls deserve to know is an option and that’s why I liked this book.
Final verdict: A feel good novel that avoids being sappy, unrealistically carefree, and overly optimistic. This one is worth reading because of its portrayal of girls who are, or are trying to be, happy in their skin without changing it.