The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Series: Dairy Queen, #2
Published: 2007, Graphia
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Format: Paperback, 277 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
Contains spoilers for Dairy Queen (my review)
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I’d promised myself that I’d really work on talking more, talking about uncomfortable things, because I could see from Brian how well things could work out if you did.
The Off Season takes place right about where Dairy Queen left off. D.J. is not only a part of her high school's football team, but she's doing really well, even receiving some national attention. Her father's hip has healed enough that he can start managing some of the farm work again. She and Brian Nelson, the quarterback of rival high school Hawley's team and also the boy who helped out on her farm all summer, have something good developing between them. She and her best friend Amber are starting to work past some of the difficulties their friendship suffered from in the summer, and D.J. has even gained a new friend through Amber's girlfriend Dale. And, most of all, D.J. hopes that perhaps her family is opening up a little, working past everyone's difficulties in communicating clearly with one another.
Life seems to be good, certainly better than it was for D.J. over the summer, until she comes to realize that everything she mistook as being stable was really descending slowly and surely into chaos. Sure, things with Brian seem great, but only when they're alone or away from people who actually know them. And things may be better with Amber, but Amber's certainly not having an easy time in their hometown anymore. A shoulder injury forces D.J. to choose between football and basketball (and a chance for a college scholarship). Worst of all, however, are the problems that spring up within the Schwenk family. D.J.'s injury pales in comparison to her mother's problems, her father's slow recovery, and a devastating accident that changes the life of one of her older brothers forever. With the stakes raised, D.J. is asked to step up to the plate and support her family like never before.
While Dairy Queen was more focused on D.J. learning how to differentiate herself from her family, The Off Season is about D.J. learning how to apply her talents in a way that benefits her family. I mentioned in my first review how I initially had a difficult time justifying how D.J.'s family treated her. But, honestly, the burdens D.J. carries for her family in the first book are tiny in comparison to those D.J. and her family must endure in the second installment. D.J.'s family undergoes so much drama and trauma that perhaps the story borders on unrealistic. They deal with misunderstandings, strained relationships, and injuries galore. All of the Schwenks are shown to be incredibly selfish in one way or another, especially in the demands they make upon D.J. I found that I could only emphasize with them to a point before my frustration began going down the path of extreme displeasure.
And yet it's in these family dynamics and characterizations that the Dairy Queen trilogy really shines and comes into its own. The first book focuses more on D.J. and her parents (especially her father) learning to understand and come to accept one another. The second book focuses much more on Schwenk sibling relationships, with the only-mentioned older brothers Win and Bill becoming integral parts of this installment. Even little brother Curtis continues his slow progression towards opening up for D.J. What is really wonderful about the focus on the Schwenk siblings is how it further fleshes out D.J. More so than parent-child relationships and perhaps even friendships, sibling relationships are incredibly formative on a person's growth. D.J. becomes a well developed character in her own right in Dairy Queen, and through The Off Season, Murdock places D.J. into context with her family to an impressive degree. The Schwenks and their family dynamics are truly wonderful to behold.
In addition to all the family drama of The Off Season, a large portion of the novel is dedicated to D.J.'s relationship with Brian. After witnessing them develop into independent, fully-fleshed out characters in Dairy Queen, I was more than ready to accept the progression of their relationship into something more romantic. Just as it's impossible for readers (and Brian) to view D.J. as a hick dairy farmer by the end of the first book, so, too, is it impossible not to realize that there's more to Brian than his privileged background. He and D.J. are so good for one another, supporting each other in ways that no one else can (at least for now), so it was with equal disappointment and anger that I witnessed their relationship begin to dissolve. At the end of the book, however, I was still rooting for these two to find a way to work out their differences and be together.
The Off Season is a very different sort of book than Dairy Queen. If I'm being honest, I cannot even say that The Off Season is quite as strong as Dairy Queen. I really enjoyed how the first book focused on D.J.'s personal growth and acceptance of herself and her desires. The Off Season is more a test of mediation between D.J.'s new realized self and the needs her family is forced to place upon her once again. Because of that, I ended up spending a good portion of the novel quite frustrated at the characters and their choices. But that actually ends up being a very good thing; the story ends on a positive note, for, as important as it is that D.J. finds herself, it's just as crucial for her to find her role within her family and be there to support them. Through new trials and tribulations, D.J. is able to emerge that much the stronger and continues to be a protagonist worthy of emulation.
Rating: 4 stars