Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Review of Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I happily set aside my usual diet of books about witches, shapechangers, and dragons when it comes to Catherine Murdock's YA novels about D.J. Schwenk. I'm also the kid that used to get hit in the head by the ball in any number of sports with names ending in -ball, but who cares? A good book is a good book, and the D.J. Schwenk books are very, very good: Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and now Front and Center.

D.J. is a tall, big-boned girl and a gifted athlete from a family of gifted athletes, but her family is not known for its communication skills. They aren't stupid, they're just not talkers. Her two older brothers are talented college football players. Her younger brother is athletic, too, though he talks so little that his teachers worry about him. In Dairy Queen, the coach of a rival high school sends his spoiled rich-boy quarterback to help out on the Schwenk farm, where D.J. is doing all of the work alone because her father has broken his hip. D.J. ends up coaching Brian Nelson in football, while he coaches her on the advantages of talking more. Being around someone who communicates encourages D.J. to question the fact that her older brothers aren't speaking to her father. D.J. is changing in other ways, too. She misses playing basketball, but eventually decides to try out for the football team, which stuns Brian, who will have to play against her. Of course, it stuns a lot of people for more obvious reasons.

In The Off Season, D.J. plays high school football, and she and Brian begin to get closer. But things start to go wrong—the farm's finances are in trouble, D.J.'s gay friend Amber gets bullied, Brian acts like he's ashamed to be seen in public with D.J., and then D.J. gets injured. It doesn't help that D.J. and Brian are featured in a People magazine article, which outs their relationship to the whole world. All of this becomes irrelevant, however, when D.J.'s older brother Win suffers a very serious injury on the sports field. She drops everything to stand by him, coaching and cajoling him through rehab.

In the third book, Front and Center, we find that although D.J. has learned to open up more thanks to her now-defunct relationship with Brian, she is still not the type to take center stage. As she returns to playing high school basketball, she realizes that's exactly what her coach expects her to do: become a leader for the team. Heavily recruited by college basketball coaches, D.J. finds that everyone around her is pushing her to verbally commit to playing Big Ten college ball. But she pulls back, afraid she can't take the pressure. Meanwhile, she is dating her buddy Beaner, although she still finds herself thinking about Brian Nelson. Even as D.J. leans toward playing for a smaller college team, life and the people who care about her conspire to convince her that she's got too much going for her to settle for less—whether in dating or in basketball.

I cannot emphasize enough how authentic D.J.'s narrative voice is. Sometimes in YA, we meet an endless parade of main characters who seem to be channeling terribly clever urban 30-somethings with their banter and sarcasm. In contrast, D.J. is such a fresh combination of ordinary and extraordinary, the way real girls are, the ones you walk past every day. Listen to her frank and slightly funny voice at the beginning of Front and Center, when she mistakenly thinks she's going to able to stay out of the limelight and avoid trouble, including boys:
But most of all—and this is what I was looking forward to the very, very most—I was done with all that boyfriend crap. Finished with the 24/7 Brian Nelson cable station that had been running nonstop inside my skull since July. No more feeling like I was some fluttery girl who doesn't have anything better to do all day long than think about her boyfriend. Because I did have better things to think about, thank you very much, because I am not the kind of girl who has boyfriends; I'm the kind who's just friends with boys, which is totally different and which I'm actually kind of good at. I'd pulled the plug on that Brian Nelson cable station for good.
That's why it felt so nice to be getting back to school. Because after five months I was back to being plain old background D.J. That's how I thought about it, anyway. In photographs of course I'm always in the background—it's a family joke, actually, that us Schwenk kids could go to school naked on picture day because we're all so crazy tall. But I mean that I was returning to the background of life. Where no one would really notice me or talk about me or even talk to me much except to say "Nice shot," and I could just hang out without too many worries at all.
It's a real gift to be able to watch D.J. struggle to grow into herself in Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and now Front and Center. Catherine Murdock is so adept that she even manages to let us know that D.J. will probably end up being an incredible basketball coach in ten or fifteen years. But this and other messages, such as the cow metaphor used so well in Dairy Queen, never call unnecessary attention to themselves. Which reminds me of D.J.'s own self-effacing style. Even so, D.J., the messages, and these three books still manage to shine. Read them, please. You will be very glad you got to know D.J. Schwenk.


Jen Robinson said...

I adore DJ, too. I think that you're dead on about the perfect narrative voice. This is one of my very favorite series. I think that I'll re-read them, actually, which is the highest of compliments.

Doret said...

I am really looking forward to reading this one. D.J. is a great character

You might like Boost by Kathy Mackel, The MC plays basketball and she reminded me of D.J.