Of all the subgenres within fiction, the one I most ignore is sports fiction. I have a few good all-purpose ones by Mike Lupica, Tim Green, Matt Christopher, and John Feinstein. But mostly they feature male athletes, and I sort of read them half-heartedly, for the primary purpose of staying current on the more popular ones. In a similar vein, I can’t remember most of the fiction featuring girl athletes I’ve read unless I look back at my notes. They just don’t grab me. However, Catherine Gilbert Murdock has written an amazing trilogy about a female teenaged football player, D.J. I would say it’s a must-read for anyone who likes YA fiction, male or female.
D.J. [her real name is Darlene Joyce Schwenk, but she goes by D.J.], sports star extraordinaire, is one of the coolest, funniest, most intriguing teen/YA heroines out there. She’s the star of Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and Front and Center. I need to clarify that this is not really “sports fiction.” Yes, it does involve a fair amount of football and basketball, but it’s more about D.J., her family, her relationships, her struggles, and her growth.
When we first meet D.J., she lives on her family’s dairy farm in Red Bend, Wisconsin. D.J. works hard – maybe not in school – doing an incredible amount of labor on her farm because of her father’s disability. There’s nothing girly or frilly about D.J.: she’s strong and big-boned, and she can milk the cows, pick up hay bales for hours, and train the neighboring school’s quarterback, Brian Nelson. D.J’s father used to be a football coach, and her older brothers have had great football careers. D.J. herself played football as a child, and after training Brian, she decides that she wants to play for her own high school team.
However, the real progress that D.J. makes involves talking and opening up to people, which isn’t something her family does a lot of. When she trains Brian, she finds that he thinks she’s aloof because of her lack of words. She tells him that this is basically normal for how her family operates. Her brother Curtis, in fact, never says anything. While the voice in D.J.’s head and heart is quite verbal, but she’s quiet around people. She can’t always explain herself or stand up for herself. Like a plow horse, she’d rather just put her head down and keep working. In many ways, she’s the perfect antidote to and polar opposite of the popular YA fiction [yes, it circulates like mad] in which the girls obsess over their weight, fashion, and boys while managing to be really bitchy to each other.
In all three novels, it’s D.J.’s funny, authentic voice which moves me. After Brian tells her she’ll end up like a cow — by which he means she does things without questioning them – she starts thinking about how people are pretty cow-like: “we all go along doing what we’re supposed to without complaining or really noticing, until we die. Stocking groceries and selling cars and teaching school and cashing checks and raising kids, all these jobs that people just one day start doing without even really thinking about it, walking right into their milking stall the way that heifers do” (DQ, 117). You have to admit, she has a point.
It’s really gratifying to see D.J. growing and changing in the trilogy. I like her work ethic, her modesty, her self-effacing comments, her kindness, and her loyalty. I’ve recommended this trilogy both to teens and to adults, and so far, they’ve all really loved D.J.