Curtis Campbell’s debut, Dragging Mason County, is a witty and charming young adult novel that encourages learning to be kinder to oneself and others. Peter Thompkin is part of a small group of queer kids who are out at his high school, and he is racked with insecurity and self-loathing. Each chapter is named with a turn of phrase Peter uses to describe himself: “an effeminate gopher,” “a destitute vole in a tacky pair of cargo shorts,” “waterlogged pool goblin,” and many more. Funny but harsh – basically, Peter’s whole vibe. His best friend, Alan, is confident enough to have his own drag character named Aggie Culture, but is still considered a nerd and is regularly picked on by Chrissy and Brison, two of the more popular students. When Peter uses his too-harsh wit to get Brison to back off, Chrissy defends her friend by filming the incident and posting it online. Because Brison is also queer, Peter’s social media is suddenly bombarded with accusations of internalized homophobia and requests that he publicly apologize.
Although Peter describes himself as “dragnostic,” in an effort to salvage his reputation and impress a cute new boy, he decides to produce his small town’s first-ever drag show. Aggie is the mother of the house of Rural Realness, a local drag house, and she adds her friends to the marquee in the hopes of making their event into a proper extravaganza. But the friends have more than just Peter’s insecurities to contend with – their town, Mason County, has more than its fair share of small-minded people. Luckily, they also find a lot of support – from enthusiastic indie teens, to sensitive, muscle-bound gym dudes.
Though Dragging Mason County deals with tough topics such as extreme insecurity, bullying, parental suicide, and homophobia, it retains a breezy, effortless voice that kept this reviewer happily turning the pages. There is a large cast of characters but most are given enough nuance and backstory to make readers care about what happens. At times Peter’s self-hating rhetoric is too much – it’s so constant as to be uncomfortable. But it shows how damaging negative self-talk can be. Overall, the themes of friendship, self-acceptance, and forgiveness are essential ones for teens, and the novel does a beautiful job of weaving together the stories of characters doing the best they can.