Mammoth by Jill Baguchinsky is about Natalie, a teen girl who has a blog that mixes fashion advice with paleontology facts. She’s a huge bone nerd and has found an audience of 60,000+ that likes this clothing/bone crossover. The novel opens with Natalie heading to the airport for an internship at the Central Texas Mammoth Site at Austin State University for four weeks. When Natalie gets there, she finds not everyone is enthused about the interns’ presence, especially since the program exists so rich people will send their kids to the Site and fund their new museum. Natalie, however, is there on scholarship.
Baguchinsky’s novel follows many YA tropes: absent parents, kissing crushes, a frenemy, a fight with the bestie, and dreams coming true. But there were some aspects that felt new. Unlike Millie from Puddin’ by Julie Murphy, Natalie is knowledgeable about her dreams. Millie wanted to be on the news but never watched, paid attention to, or talked about news. Natalie, on the other hand, shares paleontology facts with museum visitors, shows other interns how to screen for small bones, and obsessively follows a paleontology podcast to learn more. If the character has a dream, she has to know something about it and have it be part of her personal make up.
Natalie’s solid knowledge about paleontology may be what keeps this book from being overly predictable. Mammoth is in present tense, which means you have to experience everything alongside Natalie. Nothing is reflected upon. Also, the novel is in 1st person, meaning we don’t leave Natalie’s head. However, it’s her specific knowledge that keeps her character consistent. In the first chapter, Natalie is established as a fashion guru, and she learned from her aunt how to sew and find vintage clothes in used shops. At one point when the interns are each given Mammoth Site t-shirts and Natalie’s doesn’t fit, she cuts cute panels into the sides and makes a new shirt. I didn’t feel like Baguchinsky was falling into telling her own life story behind a character name. Natalie is her own person with distinct qualities.
However, not all of those qualities are great — and they all pertain to fat shaming behaviors. Every day Natalie comments on the “industrial-strength shapers” she wears, an item worn under the clothing to make the body look more “shapely” and less fat. Despite the Texas heat wave, she wears loads of make-up that take hours to apply, dresses, and heels (even on the day they head into the woods for a dig).
I did pay attention; there was something about Natalie that suggested she wasn’t your average fat person who hates being fat. She wears a hair tie on her wrist and snaps it to hold in her feelings. Around people she restricts her food intake, but when they’re gone she eats a slice of pizza or a BBQ sandwich. Baguchinsky doesn’t choose to have Natalie binge in secrecy, thus validating those who believe fat people have no self-control. Natalie’s learned to hold herself in in many ways, likely from the comments she gets in real life and the trolls on her blog.
When I read my notes, I can see there is development in the character. She goes from fairly negative to owning some confidence through her skills (paleontology, sewing, thrifting, blogging) instead of her appearance (make-up, hair, dresses, heels, the “Look of the Day” photo on her blog that makes her feel obligated to always be attractive, guessing other women’s weight). Although I hope to one day read more novels in which characters have already crossed over that self-hating hump, Natalie’s progress satisfied me. I confess it was hard, as a fat woman, to read all her self-hating thoughts along the way. Yet, I would recommend Mammoth.
*I want to thank Liz @ Libro Full-Time for recommending Mammoth. I always appreciate it when readers bring books for my Reading Fat Women challenge to my attention. It helps reduce the number of books that I read that are completely damaging to my mental well-being as I work on this goal.
On a side note, I’m re-reading Dietland by Sarai Walker, this time aloud to my husband. He’s really into it, and every time I think about a solid rec for fat fiction, it’s Dietland. The main character hates being fat, but she goes through a dramatic change during which she learns that she doesn’t have to be “fuckable” (the term used in the book). I’d argue Natalie goes through a similar, albeit much smaller, transformation.