A few years back, when I still had a toddler that took naps, I used to have enough time to watch one episode of Netflix TV (sometimes two, if it was a good sleep day) every morning. I’d fold laundry or do arm weights or something, so I felt like I was getting something of use done. And then I discovered Friday Night Lights. Once I found myself in the world of Mr. & Mrs. Coach, Matt Saracen and Landry, and Tim Riggins, that was it. I didn’t even pretend to do anything else. I binged the shit out of that show.
I loved how it immersed me into a culture (Texas football!) that I knew nothing about, and made me feel like I understood it and made it important to me. I loved watching the marriage dynamics between the Taylors and appreciated the honest ups and downs of marriage that they portrayed. And I loved the Texas lingo that I picked up, in particular, starting a sentence with “I’ll tell you what…”
And all of those qualities are what made me like Dumplin’ so much. Dumplin’ is the Friday Night Lights of Texas pageant stories. And the characters even said “I’ll tell you what…”
Willowdean is a high school girl in a rural Texas town, a town that’s pretty much only known for its annual beauty pageant, which Willowdean’s mother won before she was born. Her mother is still obsessed with the pageant, and runs it every year, still wearing the dress that she wore when she was crowned.
But Willowdean isn’t a pageant girl. Willowdean is fat. We never get any specifics about her size, she never never tells us any numbers, but we do know that she is fat. What’s refreshing about Willowdean is that she accepts her size and doesn’t let it define her. She is more than comfortable in her own skin. Her mother? Not so much. She is always pushing new diets or trying to get Willowdean to watch weight loss shows on TV. Her mom’s sister, Aunt Lucy, recently died. And Lucy weighed over 300 pounds. Willowdean’s mom is obsessed with not letting herself — or Willowdean — turn in to Lucy.
Willowdean is so much more than a big girl, though. She is friendly, and funny, and has a beautiful smile. She’s a loyal friend and looks out for others. And she loves Dolly Parton more than I can possibly comprehend.
When Willowdean meets the handsome Bo at her after school job, her whole world turns upside-down. It seems that Bo likes Willowdean, and not just as a friend. But when she finds out a few of Bo’s secrets, she wonders if Bo is using her or if they were really meant to be.
And so Willowdean makes a few decisions that could change her life forever. She makes new friends (how awesome is Hannah?), meets new people (drag Dolly Parton impersonators!), and decides to enter the pageant herself. But along the way, she also messes up her relationship with her best friend, strains her relationship with her mom, and hurts another boy who really likes her.
Y’all, I really liked this book. It was warm and comforting, even when discussing topics that aren’t easy. I was really rooting for Willowdean and her rag-tag bunch of friends, and was proud of them for standing up to society to say, hey, we’re beautiful, too. And I loved that it made me think about Friday Night Lights, and made me realize that I’m desperately in need of a re-watch.
In the meantime, please enjoy this supercut of Coach Taylor saying things.