The following book has been selected as part of my search to find positive representations of folks who identify as fat women in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. That positive representation will not hinge on the character being miserable and then happy after losing weight or falling in love. Characters can lose weight or fall in love, but it is not the catalyst for their happiness. I also will not recommend books in which the character pulls her body apart (I call this the “chicken dinner”) and criticize pieces.
Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.
Content Warnings: harsh fat shaming
Mary Brown’s fantasy novel Pigs Don’t Fly (1994, Baen Books) is part of a trilogy or quartet, depending on how you look at it. The first book, The Unlikely Ones, is completely separate from this book — by hundreds of years, setting-wise — except there is a ring made from a unicorn horn created in The Unlikely Ones that comes back in Pigs Don’t Fly. All you need to know is that it warns the wearer of danger by tingling and allows them to think-speak to animals. Therefore, I vote we’re dealing with a trilogy, starting with Pigs Don’t Fly and dismiss The Unlikely Ones as a separate novel. Furthermore, Brown published The Unlikely Ones in 1986, whereas the next three were published 1994, 1995, and 1999. I’ve spent time on this question because readers on Goodreads seem unsure where to start in the little series and wanted to be helpful to those interested in picking up Brown’s novels.
Pigs Don’t Fly begins with Summer’s life with her mother, who is the village prostitute, which keeps them in money. Summer gains a bit of an education when each man who regularly visits her mother teachers Summer a bit of what he knows or does. The setting is unclear, but it’s something Europe-ish, everyone is a Christian, and there are mostly small villages and knights that own castles. You get the classic fantasy setting as a result. When Summer’s mother suddenly dies, her former clients decide they’ll kick Summer out of the house so a new prostitute can move in — she’s too fat to be a whore. Thus, Summer gathers up her stuff, sets the house on fire in the middle of the night, and runs away with some coins for a dowry. Like classic fantasy, she picks up a rag-tag group of creatures that rely on her: a flea-ridden dog, a blind knight, a pigeon with a broken wing, a turtle whose owners abandoned him, a horse that’s been abused, and a runty pig . . . with wings. The entire book is narrated from Summer’s perspective.
Mary Brown suggests she’ll stick to fantasy tropes: the animals will heal and find their perfect homes as they travel, the knight and Summer will fall in love, and they will have children who will carry on the story in the next book. But Brown deftly dodges our expectations of traditional fantasy. After traveling hundreds of miles by foot and facing challenges along the way (fantasy is set up like Nintendo games in which you must face mini bosses to get to the next level), she realizes she’s a different person who can’t go back to her old way of thinking. I was happy to be surprised and see a character grow organically.
There’s a lot of humor that made me give a small laugh — not riotous, but more charming. The dog is always hungry (even after he’s eaten), so he’s constantly getting caught with his face in the food dishes. The pig with wings is able to save himself and Summer from a high castle window when they’re held captive by filling himself with air and farting them to safety, like a balloon. There’s also a ghost boy that petulantly demands to be told a story or he’ll kill everyone.
The problem is this: Mary Brown made Summer a fat girl and totally belittles the character for no reason that helps the plot. Summer admits:
The fact was I was fat. Not fat, obese. No, admit it: gross. I was a huge lump of grease, wobbling from foot to foot like ill-set aspic. I couldn’t see my feet for my stomach, hadn’t seen them for years. . . . I had lost count of my chins and got sores on my thighs with the flesh rubbing together.
The knight in the story was recently wounded in a battle, causing blindness and amnesia. Summer is thankful he can’t see how fat and plain she is. Wouldn’t he be grateful for the help of a stranger who promises to return him to his home, when he can’t actually remember where home is? Summer asks people they meet to not tell the blind knight that she’s fat because she’s in love with him and doesn’t want to ruin things.
At one point, a street child calls Summer “fatty,” and she thinks, “I flushed with anger — but then I was fat wasn’t I . . .?” Here, I was proud of her! Recognizing that being fat is just a descriptor is hard to do, and she’s done it. I thought the character was growing emotionally. Summer even uses her size to push people around as she escapes and saves the pig’s life in one scene.
Given that classic fantasy involves a journey, typically on foot, I wasn’t surprised that Summer started to lose weight. You walk about 15 miles per day and that tends to happen. When she first notices that she has to take in her dresses a bit, she calls it “a small victory.” What, I wondered, did she “fight” to make her a victor?
The ultimate punch to the heart, though, was Mary Brown’s choice to make being fat the component that would keep Summer from happiness — because when she was fat she was disgusting. At the end of the book, Summer is thin, radiant. “Radiance” is unrealistic. A person who walks hundreds of miles and is nearly starving the whole book would definitely lose weight (and be malnourished), but she would also have excess skin all over her body. If you look at the cover image, that’s Summer, and Brown sells readers some weird fantasy-diet-self-help book of sorts. While there is a pig with wings in the book, the title may also be a way of saying that Summer won’t be successful (able to fly) as long as she’s a pig (e.g. fat). The actual pig, who seems to know things from the past, think-talks to Summer to explain how Summer went from gross to gorgeous:
“[Your mother, the prostitute,] didn’t want a pretty daughter to rival her, so she did the only thing she could short of disfigurement: she fattened you up like a prize pig, so that only a pervert would prefer you. Now you are all you should be.”
Never mind that Summer was the leader of a group of broken creatures, kept them safe, saved their lives, brought in money, and found them all homes. Never mind that she is a dreamer and adventurer who never settles when there are so many chances to do so. And that quote just above is why I keep looking for positive representations of fat women in fiction. We deserve better.