It is summer in Red Bend, Wisconsin and 15 year old D.J. Schwenk has a lot on her shoulders. With her father still recovering from a hip injury, her mother busy with her teaching/admin work, her two older brothers off at college (and not on speaking terms with Dad), and her youngest brother selectively mute, D.J. has been running the family farm – keeping the fields, buildings, and cows in working order. With the hard work and long hours of farming, D.J.’s grades have suffered and she has had to abandon her commitment to her sports teams (one per season: volleyball, basketball, softball, and track). While she’s busy baling hay and milking cows, rather than competing in summer track meets, a family friend – who also happens to be the football coach of Red Bend’s rival team – sends his team’s star quarterback to help out at the Schwenk Farm. While the QB, Brian Nelson, doesn’t seem to be a good match at first – for the farm work or for D.J. – things get more interesting and the two teens more compatible when D.J. adds one more task to her summer responsibilities: secretly training Brian Nelson for the upcoming football season. D.J. comes from a football family (her dad even names cows after football players and coaches) and has practiced with her older brothers (former high school football stars) for years. During her summer of farming and football, D.J. learns a lot about herself, her family, and the importance of doing what you love.
Our blog buddy, Capillya of That Cover Girl, guest posted earlier this month here at Love YA Lit and counted Dairy Queen as one of her favorite YA novels. So I quickly requested the audiobook at my local library and got to listening. This book absolutely lived up to the hype and the audiobook is one of my favorites that I’ve listened to so far this year. The narrator, Natalie Moore, is outstanding. She captures the heart, attitude, and tone that Murdock created for D.J. Schwenk and with a slight Wisconsin accent peeking through, the reading is just perfect. In just under 300 pages and just over 6 hours of listening, this book packs a lot into the story of one girl’s summer. And Murdock does so without the story feeling too crowded or aspects feeling underdeveloped.
It’s hard to say what I appreciate most about Dairy Queen – the fun and fabulous D.J. Schwenk, the family-farm setting, or the way that Murdock develops both our understanding of the family dynamic and the family members as individuals. I’ve come across very few YA titles that take place on a family farm and with a farm-working protagonist. I’m friends with farmers and farm-workers and I’ve done some farmworker advocacy work over the years. I recognize some of my farmer/farmworker friends in D.J. and appreciate that Murdock shows the struggles and physical tolls that farm work can take on one’s body and life. And she shows how this important and intensely hard work can be devalued and mocked by those who don’t know any better (or are just plain mean); for example, when Brian’s friends moo at D.J. and call her “Dairy Queen”. I also love how Murdock focuses on D.J. learning more about her family – recognizing that they have some serious communication issues, and that they each have their own secret desires and activities. I have a lot of respect for D.J. Schwenk. She works extremely hard and makes personal sacrifices for the sake of her family. But over the summer, she also recognizes that her own needs and passions are important, and makes plans to do something that will make her happy, rather than simply doing what is expected or asked of her. She isn’t perfect, but she does acknowledge and own her shortcomings and mistakes and in the process gains some self-understanding and self-esteem. D.J. has an enjoyable and believable voice and is a skilled storyteller. I like her so much, in fact, that I forgive her for her snide comment about the non-milk-drinking type of vegetarian. Friends on.
There are two books that follow in the Dairy Queen Trilogy – Off Season and Front and Center – and I hope to read them all someday, as I can’t imagine that any book narrated by D.J. could be anything short of wonderful. I also think Nora should give Dairy Queen a second try. In a post Friday Night Lights world, she may be open to giving a sports-themed book a try….