Thursday, October 08, 2009

Going for It: Front and Center by Catherine Murdock

That's the thing. When I said that it sure felt good to be going back to school, I didn't mean just going to school. I meant having everything go back to the way it used to be. The way it's always been. With D.J. Schwenk in the background, just like always. In the background where I belong.

But instead, it was the exact total opposite. Instead of being a nobody, now I was front and center.

And let me tell you something. Front and center sucks.

Front and Center (Houghton Mifflin, 2009), the long-awaited sequel to Catherine Murdock's best-selling Dairy Queen (review posted here August 7, 2007) and sequel The Off Season reviewed here, finds D. J. Schwenk in a quandary. She's got what she wanted. She's back home after two hard months coaching her partially paralyzed brother Win into giving life another chance after a catastrophic game injury; she's recovered from her own shoulder separation in football and is ready to concentrate on snagging a basketball scholarship, as her mom puts it, as "the only way out of Red Bend;" and she's sure she's put all thoughts of onetime boyfriend Brian Nelson behind her:

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.

But when the conveniently tall Beaner Halstaad asks her on an actual date, D.J. reconsiders. Beaner is a basketball player, too, funny, comfortable in his own skin, and popular with everyone, even teachers, a kid who has the knack for smoothing over D.J.'s shyness and making her feel at home with anyone as long as he's around. He's the perfect boyfriend substitute, except that she can't talk to him about what really bothers her like she could with Brian, not to mention that there's no thrill, even when he kisses her.

Guy problems aside, though, D.J.'s big problem is with the expectations of her coach, her classmates, and her brother Win, who's made her scholarship with a Division III school the focus of his rehabilitation. A college football superstar before his accident, Win has an in with all the Big Ten coaches, and D.J. finds herself deluged with letters from all over, from Wisconsin to San Diego to little St. Margaret's College, and as Red Bend's team takes the court, she is horrified to discover scouts in the stands and a coach who expects her to take charge of the team on the court. Schwenks are anything but talkers, and the best D.J. can bring herself to do is to mutter quick instructions to Kari, her mouthpiece point guard, on the fly during a game.

A visit to a University of Minnesota game doesn't help, as D.J. watches a player she knows miss two foul shots and lose the game in front of ten thousand fans. She's angry at Win's constant meddling, and her coach's constant pressure. She knows she can't handle being front and center in that bigtime arena, and, fearing to fail everyone's hopes for her, D.J. takes refuge in her resolution to take any scholarship she can get to a lowly Division III school.

I already knew I was a loser. Someone who didn't measure up, not when the pressure was on. Now it was just a matter of everyone else figuring it out.

Oh, wouldn't that be fun.

Slowly, though, D.J. realizes that this is her game to play. Taking charge of her fears, taking charge of the Red Bend team, and taking charge of the rest of her life is--as the season nears an end--squarely on her own strong shoulders. She digs deep, pulling up an alter ego whom she nicknames Darey, to speak for her on the court, and when that begins to work for her in the game, D.J. finds her own voice--to break up with Beaner, to make the call to Brian Nelson and begin again with him, and to make that call to the Division I coach and take the chance of being the best player D.J. Schwenk can be. To herself, she admits that her brother was right to push.

Win, you say I saved your life. Well, you didn't save mine; you got me one. You've found me a better life than I ever imagined I deserved.

Critics and readers alike have rejoiced at the honest, authentic voice of Murdock's main character, so unlike the hyper-sophisticated heroines of many teen novels. Tall and strong, strong enough from her dairy chores to arm wrestle most potential boyfriends to the ground, D.J. offers up her frank but funny confessions about what it feels like to be a different kind of girl heroine, winning the love of readers of all ages. It will be hard for fans to say goodbye to D.J. Schwenk, if indeed this is the last we hear from that wonderful "Dairy Queen."

In the meantime, for readers there's Murdock's funny femme fairy tale/fantasy novel, Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of her Recollection, in Four Parts.

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