- By Jill Baguchinsky
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Jenny Ferguson
- December 24, 2018
A teen fashionista and paleontology nerd obsesses too much about her size.
Fat protagonists are beginning to claim space in young-adult publishing, with hits like Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ and its sequel, Puddin’, as well as Angie Manfredi’s forthcoming YA anthology, The F Word.
In Jill Baguchinsky’s sophomore novel, Mammoth, readers will find a fat girl in STEM, mammoths — not dinosaurs! as protagonist Natalie Page corrects us — and, yes, the classic YA narrative that explores “Who Am I?” (this time, amid fashion, romance, and bone dust).
Natalie is a plus-sized fashionista and paleontology nerd who runs the blog Fosillista.com, where she showcases her outfits, her life, and paleo news for her followers. But the confident and “awesome” figure Natalie portrays online isn’t how she feels.
The first scene in the novel happens at 3 a.m., when even the toughest teen might be a little delicate. Natalie is preparing to leave home for a month for a coveted paleo internship:
“I know just how to pose, angling my body to make the most of the size twenty, hourglass figure I’ve achieved through industrial-strength shapewear under my dress. I jut my neck forward to avoid a double chin, flip my dark hair, put my hand on my hip, and hold my phone in front of my face, which is the most flattering angle I’ve found for full-body shots.”
Awesome is Natalie’s chosen adjective, but self-esteem isn’t always iron-clad in teenagers, and Natalie embodies how hard it is to be your awesome self when you’re so concerned with size:
“Restrooms are perfect spots to hide and regroup and decompress in between sessions of being awesome. I do this after lunch in school, after I’ve held court at the popular table, after I’ve exhausted myself with chatter and gossip and bright, fake smiles.”
Problematic fat representation has hurt fat readers before — and an obsessive focus on the body, especially the fat body, can set this fat reviewer’s teeth on edge. This is in part because fat protagonists have been written by people who don’t understand what it’s like being fat, are actively fat-phobic, or have internalized society’s fat phobia so that they reproduce it without critical thought.
But more than that, we deserve fat protagonists whose main conflict isn’t always their size. However, this is exactly what Mammoth addresses. If you are looking for another kind of fat representation, this is not the book for you.
On Baguchinsky’s website, the author writes: “There’s no universal experience when it comes to being fat. Some readers will identify with Natalie’s path. Others won’t. I fully expect criticism from those whose experiences have differed from Nat’s, who wanted something else from the story, and that criticism is valid.”
In the case of Mammoth, I tend to fall on the side of criticism. Natalie engages in self-harm with a black hair tie on her wrist that she snaps, so that by the time she’s ready to board her flight to Texas, her “wrist is pink and tender.”
The anxiety and stress of a 16-year-old leaving home and traveling alone, coupled with the fact that the place where her internship is being hosted is in possible legal trouble, rings true. But Natalie reads a little one-note — her focus is size, size, size both in terms of her thoughts toward herself and all other women she meets.
The conflicts develop some once Natalie reaches the dig site: She’s on scholarship while “a strawberry blonde girl (110, if that)” is the rich daughter of Natalie’s paleo hero, and seemingly Natalie’s rival for the attentions of the other scholarship kid, an Iowa farm boy with really shapely forearms.
Moments where Natalie’s fashion life come into conflict with her paleo life are more compelling, because they’re more complex metaphors for self-confidence and size. They draw Natalie’s self-esteem armor — her fashion — against the thing she truly loves: pre-historic mammoths and paleontology.
On her first day at the site, Natalie’s shoes are too high-fashion for the trails:
“A moment later, she’s presenting me with a pair of decrepit tan work boots several sizes too large. They’re so caked in dried mud that I hate to touch them. There’s nowhere to sit, so I clumsily put them on while standing. I pull the laces as tight as possible and double knot them, chipping my turquoise nail polish in the process.”
While Natalie’s blog posts buzz with voice, at times, the first-person narration in Mammoth can feel a little flat. The tone even swings quite adult in certain phrases. For example, Natalie says things like: “I want to press the matter but he's already ambling away" and “Still nursing his first beer, Cody rolls his eyes.” These are moments where the language isn’t teenage-sharp, and phrases like this feel off compared to Natalie’s voice in her blogs.
Some readers will find their experience reflected in Mammoth’s pages, while others will find that their favorite features — Natalie’s Look of the Day and blog posts — disappear or fade out halfway through the novel.
Jenny Ferguson is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a Ph.D. She believes writing and teaching are political acts. Border Markers, her collection of linked flash-fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press. She is the creative-nonfiction editor and à la carte blog editor for carte blanche, where she welcomes pitches for blog posts from BIPOC, QT2S, and disabled writers, as well as writers from other marginalized communities.