Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dairy Queen

Dairy Queen
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Publisher: Graphia
Release Date: June, 2007

Series: Book 1 of 2 to date

D.J. Schwenk is only 15 years old, but she has the work load of three adults. When her father injures his hip, the work of running a small, family dairy farm falls on D.J. Her older brothers, Win and Bill, have left home to play football in college, and even if they could come back, a falling out with their father makes that impossible. So D.J. must sacrifice the things she enjoys in order to spend her days doing the endless chores necessary to keep the farm operating. She quits the sports teams where she is the star player, and she even flunks her English class when her work keeps her from completing assignments.

Non-communicative and un-complaining, D.J. does what's asked of her without a word of refusal. When the quarterback from rival high school Hawley's football team shows up on the farm with instructions to offer a helping hand in exchange for training by D.J., she wants to refuse. But she agrees, and in between milking and haying and maintaining the farm, she spends her time with Brian Nelson coaching him to be a better player. Over the course of the summer, she realizes that the skills she has that allow her to be a trainer to Brian - hours of playing football with her older brothers - would also allow her to play on her own school's football team. The idea of for once doing something she wants to do and chooses to do for herself rather than all of the things people expect her to do is very appealing.

However, she's sure no one in her life would share this enthusiasm. Not her father, who's inability to show any appreciation for the work that D.J. does or the sacrifices she's made don't indicate a willingness to embrace such an unconventional concept as a girl playing on the football team. Certainly not Brian, who would become her competition and might view their time spent together as her way of spying on him rather than an attempt to make him a better player. Maybe not even the school's coach, who admits that he has no idea if a girl can play on the team, and even if so, not one who has flunked her English class.

Meanwhile, D.J. struggles to understand why the relationship with her long-time best friend, Amber, has grown so tense of late. She despairs at the feelings she's developing for Brian, a guy she's certain would never be interested in a stupid farm girl like herself. And she silently rages against her tight-lipped family that never talks about problems but rather shuts each other out so that they resemble a group of strangers living in the same house.

D.J. is a fascinating character. She's so unlike the normal girly-girl protagonists you find in so many young adult novels aimed at girls. Despite her advanced maturity and the adult-like burdens she carries, she's amazingly lacking in confidence. She truly views herself as nothing more than a hick farmer who will never fit in, so stupid she can't pass English despite knowing that it was not her lack of smarts but her lack of time for schoolwork that caused the problem. The idea of someone like Brian ever finding her in any way interesting is completely foreign to D.J., and when he does show interest, she sees it as fleeting at best.
Too, D.J. is unusual in that she does not speak often. While as readers we are fully aware of what she is thinking and feeling at a given moment, Murdock makes it clear that D.J. is unable to articulate these thoughts and feelings. While we want D.J. to scream and shout against the unfairness of her situation, D.J. herself never views things this way. Nor would it occur to her to say anything about it even if she did. She accepts her burdens stoically. Too, her inability to communicate causes rifts with Brian that are very realistic.

While I appreciated the fact that D.J. was not a whiner, I did grow increasingly frustrated with what I viewed was a certain level of child abuse that I thought her parents were engaging in. The idea that parents would allow working on a farm to interfere with their child's grades - to the point that D.J. flunks English despite many written warnings to her parents - is despicable at the best. They take advantage of D.J. to the degree that I would think a call to Child Welfare wouldn't be out of line. The amount of physical labor alone is horrific.

Too, I found it highly reprehensible that D.J. was expected to give up the things she loved to do - play on the basketball team, run track - in order to run the farm virtually alone. That her parents would not consider other options is unbelievable. Granted, I'm sure in such a situation options are very limited, but it was hard for me to read about D.J.'s experience without fuming at the unfairness of it all.

Murdock does an amazing job conveying D.J.'s feelings in such a way as you can believe D.J. is really describing them. She maintains D.J.'s voice throughout, and I wanted very much to know how things would work out for this girl. At times I wanted her to tell everyone around her that they are all jerks - especially D.J.'s father whom I found very hard to like or sympathize with - and at one point, D.J. does allow all of that low-simmering rage to come to the surface in her own way.

As a character, Brian Nelson is very three-dimensional. He's got both faults and virtues that make him real - he's a spoiled boy quarterback who's aware of it and doesn't necessarily like the fact. His feelings for D.J. remain undefined and uncertain, which is in line for what D.J. perceives to be the case. We're never quite sure how he feels about her, because neither is she.

All in all, I really loved this book. I expected something much lighter and more humorous when in truth, this book is rather dark in the way it portrays life on a family farm. There are no easy answers, and people are portrayed complete with some very serious flaws. Even so, I loved D.J. as a character and am anxious to read the next installment in the series.

Rating: Couldn't Put It Down
Status of Series: Outstanding first installment

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