Monday, October 08, 2007

A Balance Of Power

In an article in the most recent issue of The Horn Book, Roger Sutton makes a reference to "...some of today's voice-trumps-all YA novelists..." Oh, so true, so true. Some of today's YA novelists do rely very heavily on voice, and those voices often sound very much the same. How often have you seen a blurb on a YA book about "A unique new voice in YA!" only to find you're reading about another Holden Caulfield clone or a Georgia Nicholson wannabe?

D.J. Schwenk's voice in Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock is self-deprecating and wry. What's more, it is also the voice of a farmer from the midwest. This is not another member of a teen bitch posse or an outsider girl who is fighting that teen bitch posse. No, D.J. is busy morning and night working in the barn to keep the family farm going while her father recovers from an injury. It's hard to see how she could be further out of the school social loop as most of us know it from teen books and movies.

The book has more than a voice. It has a strong setting in the Schwenk's midwestern farm. It has powerful characters in D.J., her silent brother, her hostile yet strangely endearing father, and her mother, a farm wife with a professional job outside the home. Even Brian, who starts out as a stereotypical ugly jock, is turned around and becomes something else here. This tale of a girl who isn't worried about a date for the prom but about whether or not she is mindlessly doing just what she's supposed to do also has a strong plot. D.J. wants to strike out, and this is the story of how she does it.

Dairy Queen is a very balanced book.

It also has a romantic element. Brian, the aforementioned ugly jock, is a great looking quarterback from a rival school. Oh, he has super grades and comes from a solidly middle class family with no cows, too. There's no doubt this boy's going to college. In the traditional high school universe he is definitely superior in every way to poor D.J., who has had only one date in her life, has had to quit the basketball team, and has recently failed English. But that's the traditional high school universe. As D.J. says, the Scwenks aren't very bright and aren't much on looks, but they definitely can work. In her farm universe, which Brian is forced to enter, she knows how to get things done. She is the power figure.

In addition to being hard workers, the Schwenks know football. Brian is sent to D.J. by his football coach for training. Some readers might find that just slightly contrived, but, hey, if you're reading a book that is only slightly contrived it's your lucky day. At any rate, D.J. has trained with her older brothers, both high school football stars attending college on football scholarships. She has knowledge Brian needs. She can hold her own with him in training.

All the good looks and money and smarts that he has are balanced by her knowledge, skill, and strength. Their romance is one of equals. Their power is balanced.

The romance doesn't take over the story, either. I couldn't help but notice the contrast.


Kate said...

I'm really pleased to see this title receiving some attention, even though it caught my attention for entirely different reasons. My biggest current obsession in YA literature is the inaccurate/ ridiculous agriculture which so often appears. Why do people who clearly know nothing about farm life and work feel entitled to write about it? It was a joy to find an author who actually knows what she's talking about in the barn.

Gail Gauthier said...

My family lived on a farm similar to the one described here for a few years when I was very young and then moved to something even smaller. The Schwenk place would be high class to us. In the early chapters of this book I was stunned by how familiar things seemed to me, and that's keeping in mind that when I was a child farmers were just coming into the kind of technology she talks about.