New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*
Imagine Shakespeare’s Othello. Now imagine Shakespeare’s Othello transformed into an 11-year-old boy named Osei, called “O.”
That’s what New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier, asks you to do. She transfers much of the action and plot of the play “Othello” to a Washington, DC elementary school playground in the early 1970s.
Desdemona becomes Dee, Iago becomes Ian, the rest of the cast turn into their six-grade classmates.
In some ways, it works. You could argue that much of the action of the play Othello is driven by childish behavior, so why not have those characters actually be children?
The jealousy that spurs much of Iago’s actions in the original Othello is there in Ian. But instead of feeling jealous for being passed over for a promotion, like Iago in the play, Ian is a calculating bully decides he can’t bear to have O, the new kid in school, become popular. His MO seems to be to put himself first, at the expense of others.
Much of the rest of the plot unfolds like the play it’s based on, with some changes. Ian manages to convince O, who’s just met Dee that day, that she has affection for another boy (in this case, Caspar, the boyfriend of Blanca), setting the wheels of jealousy and tragedy turning.
The strawberry handkerchief becomes a strawberry printed pencil case. (although, cleverly, a handkerchief does make its way into O’s backpack, seemingly just there as an Easter Egg for Shakespeare fans.) The teachers and students at O’s new school seem to fear him slightly and feel anxious around him because he is black and they are white.
I would say that the race issue feels more heightened in New Boy than it does in the play. There are some downright awkward lines commenting on O’s color from the white characters around him. Issues of identity and what it means to black in 1970s America also crop up.
Given that the novel does primarily involve 11-year-olds, the ending isn’t quite so bloody as the original tragedy. But it is still shocking, especially given the current climate of school shootings and violence on school grounds.