New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
This is one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series; the Bard’s classic plays reimagined by modern-day authors. Last year I got to read Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest. Now, I’m moving on to Othello as envisioned by Tracy Chevalier.
Chevalier sets her retelling in 1970s Washington DC. The era, with its incendiary post-civil rights racial tensions, provides a brilliant backdrop for a story that orbits intimately around Othello’s otherness (both his race and, presumably, his religion).
Disconcertingly, Chevalier has set her story in an elementary school. The major players are now sixth graders; the horror and the tragedy of the plot enacted by eleven year olds. A bold choice, but one that ultimately plays out well. The petty intrigues and backstabbing of playground rivalries seem to need only a small push to spiral into terminal misunderstanding and violence.
The story, set over a single school day, begins with Osei, also called O, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat starting his first day at a new school, and the only black student enrolled. He quickly befriends Daniella (also called Dee), one of the most popular girls in school, and the two hit it off almost instantly. Unfortunately, Osei’s unlikely friendship with Dee, and his acceptance by Casper, the most popular boy at the school, inspire bully Ian to concoct a malicious plot to put the “uppity” Osei in his rightful place.
New Boy is a powerful retelling of a play that is in itself timeless. Othello continues to resonate with audiences today because the attitudes of racism, resentment, and revenge are depressingly familiar to us all. The child-like cruelty of the elementary students in New Boy is at once horrifying and familiar. The reinforcement of this cruelty by the adults in the picture (who, as one character points out, “should know better”) provides further commentary on the pervasiveness of racism and the continuous effort at education and cultural exploration needed to help combat it. By setting the story in the 1970s, Chevalier gives us some temporal space from such abominable ideas, but recent events should quickly make it obvious that we have not come nearly as far as we would like to think.
In all, this is a great modern retelling of a Shakespeare classic (is that redundant? I think it may be). Othello is an important story, and New Boy will make it more accessible for those who don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the Bard’s archaic prose.
An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.