As he begins his freshman year at UC Berkley, D'aron Davenport is clearly a fish out of water. Thousands of miles away from his hometown in Georgia, D'aron struggles to find his way in this new place. He has never had to put much effort into his school work, and quickly ascended to the top of his small high school class with minimal effort. But the rigors of collegiate academics have taken their toll on D'aron. After the first semester, he finds himself with unsatisfactory grades and the threat of academic probation. A meeting with his advisor reveals deeper internal issues. D'aron's advisor, who also made the move from small conservative town to large liberal city, diagnosis the young man's social conundrum. She tells him that his difficulty in reconciling his upbringing with the culture of his new setting is normal, but he must come to terms with these issues to achieve success in his studies.
It is not until an awkward turn at a party that things for D'aron begin to change. A misunderstanding finds D'aron, his roommate Louis Chang, Candice (from Iowa) and black prep school student Charlie being accused of being racially insensitive. From there, the group, 4 Little Indians as they call themselves, become close friends, and it seems that D'aron has overcome his social insecurity. It is an American History class on alternative perspectives that inspires the friends to create a performance piece that makes a political statement. D'aron's hometown, Braggsville, the kind of conservative place where "gay" is used as an insult or joke, holds an annual Civil War re-enactment. The group decides to make their statement at this event. When things don't proceed as expected, the foursome and the entire town of Braggsville are forced to face racial, social, and cultural issues that none of them could have anticipated.
Johnson tackles tough issues and interesting characters to middling results. The central plot and characters are very well conceived and offer natural ways to explore complex social issues. Unfortunately, Johnson's unique authorial voice takes a bit of time to get used to, sometimes making reading this novel a chore. As is so often the case with this subject matter, the mechanics of written language fail to portray the lofty ideas that are discussed. That being said, there is no denying Johnson's craft. Even when the plot becomes muddied by excess points and overtly obvious observations, Johnson manages to steer the story back to a central focus that is both timely and engaging. In the end, Welcome to Braggsville is not a book that everyone will enjoy, but definitely offers the kind of sharp satire and commentary that is difficult to achieve.
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