Not so long ago, I tried reading a book that I had heard a little bit about, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. It didn’t entirely seem like my type of book. It’s set in Wisconsin on a farm, and the first-person narrator (named DJ) is a girl who loves football, works on a farm, and is failing her English class. However, I love the idea of books that take me out of my comfort zone, and since I’d heard it was lots of fun, I was optimistic. I’m glad I gave it a shot because within a week, I had read all three in the series and felt that happy, pleasant satisfaction from having read a book with fun, realistic characters who grow and change.
DJ has been picking up the slack at her family’s small dairy farm since her brothers left for college and her dad had to have hip surgery. Her mother, her father and her younger brother rely on her, and DJ has ended up with more responsibility than a sixteen-year-old would normally have. Now that her summer vacation has arrived, she knows that she will have to focus on running the farm, unlike her peers who get to spend the summer relaxing and having fun. One day, DJ is unpleasantly surprised when Brian Nelson, a football player from the rival school’s team, shows up on the farm. He’s been sent there by his coach to help out and, hopefully, to learn about leadership and maybe build a work ethic comparable to DJ’s. As you can imagine, things start off rocky between the two teens. Brian is popular, arrogant and rich, and DJ is a sturdy girl used to working hard for everything she has or wants. But after some consideration, they both decide to work together; Brian will help DJ on the farm, and DJ will help coach Brian so he can be an amazing football player. As you can imagine, it gets a little complicated when DJ starts to develop romantic feelings for Brian, but things get even more tangled up when DJ decides to try to join her school’s football team, which would pit her against Brian.
In Dairy Queen, Catherine Gilbert Murdock creates a protagonist who is funny, smart and really endearing. At the start of the novel, DJ keeps everything inside. She isn’t particularly self-confident, and she hides most of what she’s thinking and feeling from those closest to her. DJ grows so much as a character, and her growth is continued over the next two novels. Now, one of my little peeves when reading series fiction is when a character will come to some sort of realization at the end of a novel, and then when the next one starts, it’s like the first novel never happened and s/he is back to zero. In the Dairy Queen novels, you see DJ keep growing, so I started to feel as if I really knew her by the time I had read all three. She seemed almost like a real person.
This absorbing series really is a delightful addition to the YA field of realistic fiction. DJ and her family go through some pretty serious things, but the novels never deteriorate into melodrama or try to solve problems with a quick and easy answer. While it has been a few years since Murdock finished the series, I hold out a small and most likely futile hope that Murdock will write more about DJ and her family (particularly futile since she has said on her website that the series is completed).
The series starts with Dairy Queen, is followed by The Off Season and wraps up with Front and Center. Each book can be read as a standalone, although if you like the characters, you’ll surely want to pick up the sequels, just like I did!