I’ve been playing catch-up with the many ARCs (advanced reading copies) I have around here and have been posting the resulting reviews over at Blogcritics. Dairy Queen is one I found interesting for a number of reasons. First, I never would have believed Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s debut teen novel, Dairy Queen, about a fifteen-year-old Wisconsin farm girl whose family is steeped in football would keep me up all night reading, but that is what happened. I refused to stop reading the perfect-pitched voice of her protagonist, D.J. (Dorrie) Schwenk. Second, Murdoch’s book is definitely against type when it comes to characters and subject matter.
The thing about D.J. and her family is that they do not talk; they work. When D.J. finally discovers her voice, this fifteen-year-old has a lot to say about her life, her family, her passion for sports, and her cows. While Dairy Queen may appear to be about Wisconsin farm life, heartland football, and a maturing teenager, at its center the book is an exploration into communication and what happens when families and friends fail to go beyond surface talk. (To continue reading, click below.)
It’s hard to ignore the opening passages where D.J. describes her aging cow, Joe Namath, and how, despite her deep feelings, she had to lead the cow to the butcher’s trailer. “If this was a perfect world, we’d keep her forever and spend a million dollars trying to fix her sore legs and she’d die of old age in a rocking chair or some pretty pasture. But this isn’t a perfect world, it’s Wisconsin, and feed costs money and vets cost money, and we barely have enough for the healthy cows, and the butcher pays us money for the old cows, and that money feeds the healthy ones.”
D.J. knows about cows. Her family lives on the Wisconsin farm her great grandfather bought; she still bales hay with the same baler Grandpa Warren used. She’s never heard of power washers. But D.J.’s spent her life caring for cows, listening to cows. Since her Dad’s operation and his inability to work the farm, she’s milked thirty-two cows two times a day, seven days a week. So don’t even talk to D.J. about cows.
It would be nice if she had help, but her two star football-playing older brothers have gone off to college, her teacher-mom is working even more hours as the fill-in for the retired principle, and her younger brother is caught up in the end-of-season baseball run-off. When Grandpa Warren ran the farm it had the spit and polish of a marine barracks. Now, despite her mowing, manure spreading, hay baling, cow milking efforts, the barn is in desperate need of cleaning, the milk house of painting, and the granary, corncribs, and old chicken coop of resuscitation.
It would be nicer still if anyone in her family talked. Instead, her mom hid behind her work at school, her younger brother remained mute, collected skulls, and loved going to the dentist, her father devoted all his time to trying out new recipes, and the two older brothers returned to college five months ago and as far as D.J. knows haven’t spoken to anyone since.
When her family friend and rival high school football coach sent his football star, Brian Nelson, to report for farm duty, D.J.’s life is forever altered. First, he played for the wrong football team. Second, the boy didn’t want to work. But then Brian compared her to a cow. Cows “go along doing what they’re supposed to do without complaining or even really noticing, until they die.” He infuriated her; he befriended her. Despite all her misgivings, D.J. agreed to become Brian’s sports trainer for the summer.
D.J.’s love for sports entered full force. Yes, she’d been on the track team; yes, she’d played on the basketball team. But Brian’s words released the Schwenk family passion. Before long she cut her hair, put on pads, and tried out for the high school football team. Did she dare tell her family? What about Brian? Their friendship seemed to have deepened over the summer. What would he say if she played against him? Never mind, D.J. had a lot to say to all of them.
I haven’t seen any reviewers mention Murdock’s thread that lightly touches on the sexual orientation of one of the characters. The storyline is an echo of the major theme and is done with a light touch, not with humor but with care. Some may find that it provides added depth. I’m not sure how necessary it was given the many layers already woven into the story’s fabric, but it adds texture and it works.
Dairy Queen encourages you to wade further and further into deep waters. D.J. is coming into her own as an individual and as a young woman. While the opening does read a bit slow, it captures the thought processes of a young woman who is not used to talking and who has to slog her way through mounds of verbiage. The long, sometimes extra long, sentences reflect a mind groping, searching to find the right phrase. The story soon gains momentum. Murdock is great at depicting farm life and expertly weaves the descriptions in with D.J.’s observations making them all relevant, and the barn functions as a symbol that works on several levels. While the story builds to a fast-paced ending, the characters linger, working Murdoch’s magic in the reader’s mind long after the final page has been turned.
Dairy Queen is aimed for readers 12 and up, but the story will provide the most enjoyment for readers who are mature and willing to allow D.J. all the room she needs to grow.
Note: This review has been cross-posted on Blogcritics.org and was selected for syndication with Advance.net. A portion of this review can be found on Amazon.com. Look for other reviews on this blog under the “Books and Review” category category. You can also read my Blogcritics page. Check out other YA books.