I never would have believed Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s debut teen novel, Dairy Queen, about a 15-year-old Wisconsin farm girl whose family is steeped in football, would keep me up all night reading, but that is what happened. I refused to stop reading the perfect-pitched voice of her protagonist, D.J. (Dorrie) Schwenk.
The thing about D.J. and her family is that they do not talk; they work. When D.J. finally discovers her voice, this 15-year-old has a lot to say about her life, her family, her passion for sports, and her cows. While Dairy Queen may appear to be about Wisconsin farm life, heartland football, and a maturing teenager, at its center the book is an exploration into communication and what happens when families and friends fail to go beyond surface talk.
It’s hard to ignore the opening passages where D.J. describes her aging cow, Joe Namath, and how, despite her deep feelings, she had to lead the cow to the butcher’s trailer. “If this was a perfect world, we’d keep her forever and spend a million dollars trying to fix her sore legs and she’d die of old age in a rocking chair or some pretty pasture. But this isn’t a perfect world, it’s Wisconsin, and feed costs money and vets cost money, and we barely have enough for the healthy cows, and the butcher pays us money for the old cows, and that money feeds the healthy ones.”
D.J. knows about cows. Her family lives on the Wisconsin farm her great grandfather bought; she still bales hay with the same baler Grandpa Warren used. She’s never heard of power washers. But D.J.’s spent her life caring for cows, listening to cows. Since her Dad’s operation and his inability to work the farm, she’s milked thirty-two cows two times a day, seven days a week. So don’t even talk to D.J. about cows.