Title: Dairy Queen
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Date of Publication: June 2007
Reading Level: ages 12-17
Synopsis (from Goodreads) -
"When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said."
Harsh words indeed, from Brian Nelson of all people. But, D.J. can't help admitting, maybe he's right. When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. Stuff like why her best friend, Amber, isn't so friendly anymore. Or why her little brother, Curtis, never opens his mouth. Why her mom has two jobs and a big secret. Why her college-football-star brothers won't even call home. Why her dad would go ballistic if she tried out for the high school football team herself. And why Brian is so, so out of her league. When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. Welcome to the summer that fifteen-year-old D.J. Schwenk of Red Bend, Wisconsin, learns to talk, and ends up having an awful lot of stuff to say.
I enjoyed this book a lot. The story is told from DJ’s first-person POV and her voice radiates through the whole narrative. Murdock doesn’t shy away from sarcasm or snark – but the story has a down-to-earth tone that seems more genuine than some YA books that are supposed to be about real-life teens.
DJ Schwenk is basically running her family’s dairy farm in Red Bend, Wisconsin by herself after her two older brothers get in a fight with her dad. Her younger brother, Curtis, is busy with little league baseball and her mother is about to get a position as the principal of the school where she’s been teaching sixth grade. Jimmy Ott, a family friend who coaches football at Red Bend’s rival school, Hawley, suggests that the Schwenks have Brian Nelson, a second-string quarterback for Hawley, work on their farm during the summer to train up for football season so he can be the starter. In the course of this, DJ ends up being Brian’s athletic trainer (her brothers always had her run after their passes and she became a pretty good player just from practice). Along the way, she decides to go out for Red Bend’s football team because it’s something nobody would expect her to do. And, of course, she develops a crush on Brian.
This book is nothing like the usual high school, Romeo-and-Juliet-esque YA romance. First off all, the romance plot is secondary – the main crux of the story is DJ dealing with work on the farm, issues with her family, issues with her friends and keeping people from finding out about her plan to try out for the football team (until tryouts actually begin, that is). It’s an authentic look at a strong female character who is truly a tomboy and doesn’t even dawn on her that she would like boys (it’s the revelation that her best friend, Amber, is a lesbian and has a crush on DJ that gets DJ to start thinking that she does like boys). The unspoken conflict between DJ and her father is so believable and real. I loved the contrast between the Schwenks, who never bring any kind of family conflict out in the open until it becomes a big blowup, and the Nelsons, who talk about everything (DJ often refers to Brian’s mother as Oprah Winfrey and she sometimes imagines the Schwenks going on Oprah to talk about their problems. The scenarios DJ imagines bring a tone of levity to an otherwise emotionally burdensome situation).
The small-town dynamics are wonderful, especially the wrench of the Red Bend vs. Hawley rivalry (I speak from experience when I say that small-town high school rivalries are SERIOUS BUSINESS – nothing about this rivalry is exaggerated). DJ’s older brothers played football for Red Bend and they lost a big game to Hawley, so the fact that DJ would even consider being friends with Brian (never mind dating him) is a major factor in her self-discovery. She feels a great loyalty to her family and her team, but she also wants to be friends with Brian (after he quits being a whiny brat about working on the farm).
There are two other follow-up books after “Dairy Queen” – “The Off Season” and “Front and Center,” both of which are very good and I recommend them.