In Dairy Queen, Catherine Gilbert Murdock doesn’t shy away from relevant adolescent issues; there’s teenage drinking, some fooling around, and a character who comes out as a lesbian. But I’m grateful she didn’t let these hot-button topics overwhelm the thoroughly engaging voice of her main character – the tall, slightly awkward, small town, uber athletic, dairy farming DJ Schwenk.
Catherine Gilbert Murdock has created an endearing character in DJ. She is complex, honest, confused, and frustrated as she tries to navigate her way through social, farm, and family politics in the small town of Big Bend, Wisconcin. I found DJ’s voice believable, and I really, truly cared about her character. She determines early on in Dairy Queen that she does not want to “be a cow.” No reference here to her size (though she does lament just how much bigger she is than other girls her age – it seems dairy farming and athletics are in her genes, and jeans). By “cow,” she means someone who just shuffles around like cattle, moving from one meaningless task to another in life. She’s always done just what she is told, and she wants to break out of that mold. Break out of the mold of her uncommunicative family and the small town mentality all around her.
DJ’s efforts lead her to pursuing something totally outside the box – playing for the high school football team. In fact, there is a lot of football in Dairy Queen, and its sequel, The Off Season, but I love how Murdock manages to keep it almost restrained – football by no means takes over the scope or landscape of these books. They are still, at their core, about a girl trying to find her place, about the complexities of family relationships, and about how we choose to live and what we choose to live for.
Though it is DJ who narrates the story, Murdock makes sure that all characters are fleshed out and get their due. I really appreciated the full cast of characters – from DJ’s silent brother to her newfound love interest (who just happens to be the quarterback for the rival high school’s football team!). I also love how Murdock doesn’t follow the temptation to wrap everything up in a nice, neat bow when all is said and done. Some things still go unsaid, undone, and you are left at the end of The Off Season wondering how the Schwenk Family will ultimately make out.
A quick note about The Off Season – as far as sequels go, I think Murdock did an impressive job with character development. If I liked DJ before, I loved her after the second book. Murdock also develops deeper themes and greater challenges for her characters, leaving me absolutely positive that the term “TOO fluffy” definitely does NOT apply.
*NOTE: Some time after this review was published, Murdock rounded this series out as a trilogy with the final book, Front and Center.
*Disclosure: Affiliate links included.