Julie Murphy and her character Willowdean, or Dumplin’, are my new heroes. This is saying a lot considering I’m in my 50s and Willowdean is a fictional teenager. Her creator, author Murphy, is somewhere in between. Murphy has given Willowdean the thoughts and emotions that I remember from my teenage years, and it’s amazing how many still resonate for me today.
Willowdean is navigating the usual teenage minefields—crushes, best friends, work, and school. But there’s one difference in this Texas girl’s life. Her mom runs the local beauty pageant. Will and her bestie Ellen haven’t ever thought entering was their thing. She says,
“El is everything I am not. Tall, blond, and with this impossible goofy yet sexy paradox going on that only seems to exist in romantic comedies. She’s always been at home in her own skin.” (page 1, ebook)
In other words, Will is more like the majority of American women than Ellen is. She’s a person of size, alternately sure of herself, and notsomuch. She embraces her size, but is uncomfortable being touched. Most of all, Murphy gives Willowdean a large quantity of heart. She’s the kind of good person who stands up to bullies.
Will is also grieving the death of her Aunt Lucy, who was really a second mother to her. She’s navigating through a world with a hole in it where Lucy used to fit. Among other things, Lucy and Willowdean share a love of Dolly Parton. If you’ve ever grieved a loved one, you’ll know that Murphy hit the nail on the head with her portrayal of Will’s struggle to find a new normal.
I won’t give you spoilers, but know that Willowdean is having that year she’ll always look back on and say, “That was the best worst year of my life.” She struggles, and I rooted for her to overcome those struggles.
I also picked this book up because of its body positivity message, which I wish we heard more about in books and the media. Will is fierce, and has a strength that many seventeen-year-olds haven’t yet gained. Heck, I know a lot of women who’re 40+ and still finding their way to body positivity. It’s a universal message, and Murphy tells the story without getting treacly sweet or preachy.
Dumplin’ reads easily and quickly. Once I reached the halfway point, I honestly couldn’t put it down. I’m anxious to see the movie, which is planned for 2018, as well as Murphy’s sequel. Willowdean is a kid I’d like to see grow into a woman, no matter where that takes her.