Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy tells the story of Willowdean Dickson, self-proclaimed fat girl. The story opens with Willowdean telling the reader that all the best things in her life have started with a Dolly Parton song.
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. Each uncertain of the other, Dumb Blonde begins playing on Mrs. Dryver’s stereo one day, 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 starting to unravel. Willowdean’s 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 of 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 furtive, 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 her mother and nearly everyone else. She enters the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty pageant.
What at first is meant as an act of defiance towards Willowdean’s mother, soon becomes a protest against societal norms as several other overweight girls enter the contest with her.
Dumplin’ is a fine commentary on the societal pressures placed on teens today. Willowdean is an immediately likable character in that she’s a bit sarcastic and sassy, but also in that she is initially happy with herself and her looks.
In fact, most of Willowdean’s unhappiness stems from the expectation of others that she should not be secure and confident in her own skin. Her mother, who peaked when she was not much older than Willowdean, continually nitpicks about Willowdeans weight telling her she’d be happier if she was skinny. The only one who seems to understand Willowdean is her Aunt Lucy. Unfortunately, she recently passed away from complications of extreme obesity. Willowdean’s relationship with her mother was already strained at best and has now become outright hostile due to efforts on the part of her mother to clean out Lucy’s bedroom and turn it 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, James is a 14 year old loner with two primary interests: humpback whales (particularly a juvenile named Salt whom he sponsors) and avoiding interaction with his peers as much as possible. When Salt appears to separate from his pod, and James’ only friend gets in with the cool crowd, James looks for advice from the only place he knows, Darren an aspiring filmmaker who once volunteered in James’ class.
Darren knows nothing about whales, but after being dumped by the one true 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. This sets off a chain of emails between the two setting them on a course neither could have predicted.
A 52 Hertz Whale portrays the developing friendship between James and Darren with quirky humor but also has a serious side that deflects the humor just enough that neither element is too little or too much.
The novel is written entirely in email format, the majority of which are between James and Darren but some also introducing other characters giving the reader insight into their lives and interweaving them with the main characters with subtle finesse.
Both Dumplin and A 52 Hertz Whale deal center around characters whose misfit status comes not as much from the fact that they don’t quite fit in anywhere, but more from the fact that it doesn’t bother them as much as it bothers those around them.
In the case of Willowdean, it is not her weight that sets her apart so much as the feelings of others 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. She is comfortable in her own skin and wishes others could accept her as she is not who they want her to be.
Like Willowdean, James doesn’t particularly care that he is different. He admits to missing his friend, but can’t fathom why he should be expected to conform to society. Through his exchanges with Darren he learns a little about being true to one’s self while also being willing to compromise. Darren, through his exchange with James, learns about chasing his dreams and being less afraid to take risks.
Both books share a common theme of loneliness, acceptance, and the horrible awkwardness of being a teenager. James and Willowdean both experience a period of learning that asking others to accept you as you are, means being willing to accept them in the same manner.
Dumplin’ ties together it’s storyline in a neat and cohesive manner while A 52 Hertz Whale leaves some minor plots dangling. The latter might frustrate readers looking for a clear resolution, but it works within context of the main plot.
A 52 Hertz Whale and Dumplin’ are vastly different stylistically and in their settings, but the books compliment each other in such a way that one could imagine a universe in which James and Willowdean might recognize each other as kindred spirits.