Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Published: 2007, Graphia (Originally 2006)
Series: Dairy Queen, #1
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Library book
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But the real reason I wanted to play football—and I sure wanted it as much as I've ever wanted anything in my life, as much as I wanted to beat Hawley in basketball last season—is because, well, this is going to sound really strange, and I'll probably never be able to explain to anyone. But if I made the Red Bend football team, it would mean I wasn't a cow. That's what I'd been struggling with ever since Brian showed up. Everyone I looked at, their whole lives, did exactly what they were supposed to do without even questioning it, without even wondering if they could do something different...But what if it was different? I mean, what if one day a cow out there in our pasture said to herself, "I've been looking at that tree for years and today I'm going to climb it"?
D.J. Schwenk's life revolves around cows. She's grown up on her family's dairy farm and, due to her two oldest brothers being away at college, her father injuring his hip, and her mother working two jobs, D.J. and her younger brother Curtis have taken full responsibility of the maintenance and milking. She's taken on far more than she can manage, and it's affecting other parts of her life, especially her English grades. So when Jimmy Ott, a family friend and the coach of the rival school's football team, asks if upcoming quarterback Brian Nelson can learn some discipline by helping out around the farm, D.J. grudgingly accepts his offer.
Soon, however, D.J. begins to secretly train Brian, helping him prepare for the new season. Football's in her family's blood, after all, with her dad having played in the military and taught pee wee football for years, her two older brothers both away at college on football scholarships, and her youngest brother already a promising player on his middle school team. D.J. played football when she was younger, but has given it up for volleyball and basketball. When she begins to train with Brian, however, D.J. sees a possibility to do something new with her life. For Brian's presence hasn't simply helped maintain the farm or improve D.J.'s training skills; instead, Brian forces D.J. to think about what others expect of her life. She doesn't want to be another "cow" blindly following others' expectations and never finding anything fulfilling in her life. The summer with Brian is a transformational one for D.J., as she learns that it's okay to voice her thoughts and start doing what she wants to do, rather than simply what others tell her to do.
I'm just going to come straight out and say that this book is quite good, far better than I expected it would be. The title and many different (equally cheesy) covers leave a lot to be desired. I believe I've been quite clear that YA contemporaries are not among my favorite type of books. The subject matter is also not really something that interests me: a girl growing up on a dairy farm who decides to try out for her high school's football team. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment spent reading this book.
What really makes Dairy Queen shine is its protagonist, D.J. Tall, socially awkward, incredibly averse to conflict, and athletic, D.J. is a character I cannot relate to at all on a superficial level. Her high school career revolves around sports more than academics, and her academics are suffering simply because she spends many waking hours taking care of her farm. Although she's nothing like me, I could not help but empathize with her character. The majority of D.J.'s decisions are for the benefit of others, even when she hopes to accomplish something for herself. I mean this in the best possible way when I say that D.J. epitomizes the idea of a good person. She's rarely petty, unkind, or selfish. And the transformational arc she undergoes is excellent. D.J. is a rare (for me) contemporary protagonist worth cheering for.
I liked Brian Nelson and his role in the story. He's not truly a love interest (which made me unbelievably happy), but is much more important for his role as a catalyst in D.J.'s life. Too often I feel as though stories focus on how the humble, poor person teaches the rich, arrogant one how to better appreciate life. Make no mistake: there is some of this trope happening within Dairy Queen. But as the focus of the plot is on D.J., so also is the transformation on her. D.J. teaches Brian the benefits of working hard, but he also has a lot to teach her about figuring out what she wants from her life and learning that there's nothing wrong with sometimes focusing on her own desires. There are outwardly obvious differences between them, but over the course of the novel D.J. and Brian more or less develop a relationship of equals, and the relationship that does form between them is cute and completely believable.
Despite the fact that her aversion to conflict and her inherent desire to please others cause D.J. to speak infrequently, Dairy Queen makes many poignant observations on life. The constant comparisons between humans and cows make up a major theme of the novel, and lead to further ruminations on free will, societal obligations, and personal obligations. I've heard comparisons made between sheep and humans, but I think that cows work just as well (especially considering the set-up of this novel). The power of airing opinions through the human voice is a similar focus on this novel. From the beginning, D.J. notes that her family isn't very good at speaking to one another; they'd rather ignore a problem and hope it goes away by itself than to address a conflict head-on. Brian notes many times that D.J.'s reluctance to speak makes him wonder if she's judging him or bored by their conversation. D.J.'s little brother Curtis actually speaks so infrequently that hearing him speak a whole sentence is a miracle. There seems to be this implicit fear that her family's set way of life could be jeopardized if all the problems and unsavory parts of it are addressed. Through the course of the novel, however, D.J. begins to change her thoughts on that, affecting her family as a whole.
From the beginning I found myself predisposed to dislike the older members of D.J.'s family. After all, how could they all allow a young teenage girl to shoulder the majority of the responsibilities in maintaining the farm, the family's livelihood? But nothing is so simple, and Murdock's story really illustrates the levels of gray associated with people simply living their lives. It is because of D.J. that her family can continue to lead a rather stable life, one whose routines are not too changed in the face of many significant upsets. Over the course of the novel, D.J. and readers learn that not only have her efforts not gone unnoticed, but how important family is.
It's worth nothing that even at her most rebellious points, however, D.J. has a healthy and admirable appreciation of her family and others. She may not want to be a cow, but she does not look down upon others who seem to be following the path prescribed for them by society, such as her two older brothers who play football in college. And, instead of simply coming to the conclusion that her family is messed-up and she no longer wants to be a part of it, D.J. looks for ways to improve their relationships.
At its heart, Dairy Queen is a rather simple story that focuses on growing up and relationships. D.J. is an incredibly likeable and relatable character, and critics would be hard-pressed to find much of anything to complain about in this story. D.J. is a wonderful protagonist, full of heart and determination, and her story is well-worth a read by readers young and old.
Rating: 4.5 stars