Dairy Queen, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, is not a book that initially called out to me from the shelf. The cover of the hardback edition shows a cow wearing a tiara, which, while interesting, didn't immediately grab my attention. I also knew vaguely that the book was about high school football, which isn't a topic that ordinarily jumps to the top of my "to read" pile. But the reviews kept piling in, all very positive, and I eventually figured out that there must be more to this story than high school football and cows. So I finally read it on a recent trip, and found myself staying up until late into the night, because I simply had to finish it. I'm now completely in love with D.J., the main character, and I have the sequel, The Off Season, next on my "to read" list.
D.J. Schwenk is the third child, and only daughter, of a small-town Wisconsin dairy farmer. The summer she turns sixteen finds her shouldering much of the load of the farm, because her two older brothers are off at football camp, and her father has an injured hip. She doesn't complain much, and struggles to meet the expectations of her demanding father, but inside, she's not happy. She's doing poorly in school, because of the farm work, and had to quit the basketball team, where she was a star. She has a best friend, Amber, but things aren't perfect between them either. And she worries about her younger brother, Curtis, who hardly ever talks.
A family friend, the football coach of the rival high school, sends one of his star players to help out on the Schwenk's farm. Brian Nelson has a great arm, but has been spoiled by his father, and doesn't have much discipline or team spirit. Before she quite knows what's happening, D.J. agrees to train Brian, to help him get ready for the fall season. They have to keep this a secret, because the towns are such strong rivals, and Brian ends up helping out on the farm quite a bit as camouflage for what they're really doing. After a prickly start, Brian and D.J. learn to talk to one another openly, and both grow as a result.
The story is told in D.J.'s first-person voice, which is necessary, because she's so quiet that we could never get to know her in third person. But inside her head, D.J. has a lot to say, and a thoughtful, sometimes sarcastic, voice. Here are a few examples:
"If there ever was a TV show called People Who Are Crazy and Need to Have Their Heads Examined, I'd be the very first guest. They'd put me on one of those couches and a guy with a beard and funny accent would ask me questions, and the audience would ooh and aah as they realized this girl was crazy. What else would explain what I had just done?" (Chapter 8)
"I kept eating, my head down. Mom kept talking, but I didn't say anything else because that's what we Schwenk's do. If there's a problem or something, instead of solving it or anything, we just stop talking. Just like cows." (Chapter 9)
"Amber was pretty good at making fun of people, but Brian -- well, he did make fun of other people, like me not being able to talk or his mom and sunblock, but it wasn't mean. It was just fun. If I had to make a list of the very best qualities someone could have, that would be right at the top. Being nice-fun instead of mean-fun." (Chapter 12)
D.J. does think a lot about football, and about cows, but for the most part she uses them as metaphors to think about larger questions. For instance, she draws analogies between people's rote actions and the day to day existence of cows, wanting to not be like a cow (someone who doesn't make choices) herself. She made me think about my own life, and times when I go through the motion on a day-to-day basis vs. displaying initiative.
Dairy Queen is a romance, in a sense, as we explore the growing friendship between the awkward farm girl and the spoiled quarterback. But that aspect of it never comes close to dominating the real story, which is about the coming of age of a girl in difficult circumstances, trying to find her own voice. I identified with D.J, despite our very different backgrounds and interests. More importantly, I cared about her, and wanted her to be ok. When I finished the book, all I could think about was getting on to the sequel, so I could spend more time with her.
I loved Dairy Queen, and I highly recommend it for upper middle school and high school readers. It's quite clean, except for some references to underage drinking. While I think that boys could enjoy it, given all of the football and training references, the female protagonist might keep them away. But I hope that the football aspects of the story won't keep non-athletic girls away. Because once you give her a chance, D.J. has a lot to offer.
Book: Dairy Queen
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (Graphia imprint for paperback edition)
Original Publication Date: May 2006
Pages: 288 (paperback edition)
Age Range: 13 and up
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Chasing Ray, bookshelves of doom, Bildungsroman, Mrs. F-B's Book Blog, Not Acting My Age, Patriot's Read, Tea Cozy, Sara's Hold Shelf
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.