Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Dairy Queen

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Dairy Queen Summary

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Dairy Queen (2006), a contemporary coming-of-age novel by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, follows the life of Darlene Joyce Schwenk, or D.J., as she navigates high school, romance, football, farm life, and her relationships with her uncommunicative family. As the novel progresses, D.J. grows and matures in her abilities to understand and express herself and to interact with others.

Fifteen-year-old narrator D.J. describes her thoughts and feelings in a breezy, almost journal-like style. A sophomore in high school, D.J. lives with her mother, father, and younger brother, Curtis, on their small dairy farm in Red Bend, Wisconsin. She and her family love football. Once a coach, D.J.’s father has named all of their thirty-two cows after famous NFL stars. D.J.’s older brothers, Bill and Win, both received college football scholarships.

D.J. knows that her family is dysfunctional. They all keep their feelings inside instead of talking about them, leading to repressed anger and problems. Curtis is shy and rarely speaks. D.J.’s mother works two jobs and is not home very often. Bill and Win packed up and left the farm after getting in a fight with her father. D.J.’s father injured his hip in an accident with a manure spreader and is now forced to use a walker. He is unable to take care of all the farm work.

D.J. suffers from low self-esteem. A big girl, tall and strong, she is self-conscious about her appearance. She calls herself dumb and ugly. She and her tough-talking friend, Amber, who is a year older, have fun joking and laughing together, but as the summer goes on, D.J. senses that they are growing apart.

With her older brothers gone, her mom working, and her father laid-up, the onus of the farm work falls to D.J. She quits playing volleyball and basketball in order to help out. Her grades also begin to slide: she gets an F in English. Things begin to change for D.J. when a family friend, Jimmy Ott, asks her a favor. Jimmy Ott is the coach of the Hawley football team; D.J.’s father used to coach with him. Hawley is Red Bend’s archrival. Jimmy Ott wants D.J. to train his star quarterback, Brian Nelson. Jimmy Ott thinks that Brian needs to learn discipline and hard work. He knows that D.J. has solid football skills from practicing and training with her older brothers. D.J. can give Brian tasks to do around the farm. D.J. agrees, even though she does not like Brian, whom she feels is lazy and spoiled, despite being smart and good-looking. Brian makes fun of D.J. at first, calling her a cow who can’t think for herself and who only does what she’s told.

As the two work together, however, Brian shows that he can work hard and that he has a lot of insight into D.J.’s emotions and family troubles. D.J. warms up to Brian, discovering in him a friend that she can talk to. D.J. develops a crush on him. Continuing to train with D.J., Brian challenges her to talk and communicate more. “When you don’t talk,” he says, “there’s a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said.” He encourages her to talk with her family about their issues.

D.J. decides to try out for the Red Bend football team. She asks Jeff Patterson, the Red Bend high school football coach, if she can play. Patterson says yes, if D.J. fixes her failed English grade. Brian breaks up with his girlfriend. This leaves D.J. hopeful at first that maybe Brian cares for her, but then she becomes self-deprecating, and thinks Brian would never be with someone like her. D.J. and Brian keep working out together. D.J. discovers that her friend Amber is a lesbian and that she is in love with D.J.

D.J. does not tell her family or Brian that she is training to be on the football team. D.J. feels that she needs to work extra hard to meet the expectations placed on her because she is a Schwenk, and her family is renowned for its football prowess. D.J. gets a yes vote to join the Red Bend team from all the football players except one. D.J. is glad the other boys support her. Red Bend plays against Hawley, and D.J. faces Brian on the football field. We learn that the entire book is the assignment D.J. wrote for her English teacher to overturn her failed grade.

Murdock explores themes of family, self-worth, self-discovery, and communication against the backdrop of small-town farm life. As D.J. progresses through the novel, she “learns to talk.” D.J. gains insight about expressing her feelings, she learns to stand up for herself, and she achieves the courage to change.

Dairy Queen was inspired by a dream of Murdock’s about a girl who played college football against the team of the boy she loved. The novel earned starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Dairy Queen was also listed as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults for 2007. Murdock went on to write more books about her Dairy Queen characters: two sequels, The Off Season and Front and Center, and a companion book, Heaven is Paved with Oreos.