Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy (HarperCollins, 2015) tells the story of Willowdean Dickson, a self-proclaimed fat girl who associates Dolly Parton with all the best things in her life.
It starts in the summer before first grade with “Dumb Blonde” from the 1967 debut album Hello, I’m Dolly. Willowdean’s Aunt Lucy bonded with Mrs. Dryver over their mutual love of all things Dolly.
As the women sipped tea and gossiped in the dining room, Willowdean and Mrs. Dryver’s daughter Ellen sat on the couch watching cartoons. “Dumb Blonde” begins playing on the stereo, and before the chorus, Ellen and Willowdean are dancing in circles. So begins the bond that unites them as best friends.
Fast forward to the present where Willowdean (called Dumplin’ by her mother) feels as if her life is slowly unraveling. Her beloved Aunt Lucy has recently passed away. Her mother, a former beauty queen, is constantly on her about her weight and seems hell-bent on removing all remaining traces of Aunt Lucy from their house.
Ellen has taken up company with a new friend who does nothing to hide her contempt for Willowdean, and Bo, the boy she’s had a huge crush on, suddenly seems interested in her as well.
Thinly veiled put-downs from Ellen’s new friend, and secret make-out sessions with Bo do little to boost her confidence, so Willowdean sets out to reclaim it by doing the one thing unimaginable to nearly everyone: She enters the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty pageant.
What at first is meant as an act of defiance towards her mother, soon becomes a protest against societal norms as several other overweight girls enter the contest with her.
Dumplin’ is a fine commentary on social pressure.
Willowdean is an immediately likable character. She’s a bit sarcastic and sassy, but she is initially happy with herself and her looks. In fact, most of Willowdean’s unhappiness stems from the expectations of others. Her mother, who peaked when she was not much older, continually nitpicks about Willowdean’s weight, telling her she’d be happier if she were skinny.
The only one who seems to understand her is Aunt Lucy, who died from complications of obesity. Willowdean’s relationship with her mother was already strained and has now become hostile due to her mother’s efforts to turn Lucy’s bedroom into a craft room.
Bo, the former football star from a local elite private school, seems to enjoy making out with Willowdean behind the dumpster and in the parking lot of an abandoned school, but shows no signs of wanting to go public with their relationship. Upon this realization, Willowdean dumps him rather than stay in a relationship that diminishes her self-confidence. ★ ★ ★ ★
In A 52 Hertz Whale by Bill Sommer and Natalie Tilghman (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), James is a 14-year-old loner with two primary interests: humpback whales (particularly a juvenile named Salt) and avoiding interaction with his peers as much as possible.
When Salt separates from his pod and James’ only friend gets in with the cool crowd, James looks for advice from Darren, an aspiring filmmaker who once volunteered in James’ class.
Darren knows nothing about whales, but after being dumped by the love of his life, he has little but time on his hands. Recognizing a kid in need of a listening ear, he fires off a quick reply, setting off a chain of emails between them.
A 52 Hertz Whale portrays the developing friendship between James and Darren with quirky humor, but with just enough of a serious side. The novel is written entirely in emails, mostly between James and Darren, but some of them subtly introduce other characters.
Both Dumplin’ and A 52 Hertz Whale center around misfits who are much less bothered by not fitting in than those around them are bothered by it. Willowdean’s weight doesn’t set her apart so much as other people’s feelings about her weight. To her mother, her best friend, and a town obsessed with beauty pageant culture, Willowdean is an outsider because she simply doesn’t care.
James doesn’t particularly care that he is different either. He misses his friend, but can’t fathom why he should be expected to conform. Through their emails, James learns about being true to himself while also being willing to compromise, and Darren learns about chasing his dreams and being less afraid to take risks.
Both books share themes of loneliness and acceptance. James and Willowdean learn that asking others to accept you as you are means being willing to accept them in return. Dumplin’ wraps up neatly and cohesively, while A 52 Hertz Whale leaves some minor plots dangling, which might frustrate readers looking for a clear resolution, but it works in the context of the main plot.
A 52 Hertz Whale and Dumplin’ are vastly different stylistically and in their settings, but they complement each other with lead characters that could be kindred spirits. ★ ★ ★ ★
Kris Milstead is a nerd insomniac. When she is not surfing the Internet or watching Doctor Who, she can probably be found reading and working on her next book review. You can follow her on Twitter at medelle71 or email her at email@example.com.