New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier
Published by: Penguin
Release date: May 16, 2017
Source: Penguin First to Read
This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which current, well known, and bestselling authors interpret and retell Shakespeare’s classics. New Boy, is Tracy Chevalier’s retelling of the tragedy Othello.
In Shakespeare’s play, Othello is a General in the city of Venice; he is a Moor, and has recently married Desdemona. The villain in the play is Iago. He hates Othello because he feels that the General refused him a promotion in favor of someone whom Iago thinks has less experience than him, the soldier Cassio.
Iago is determined to exact revenge upon Othello; and he enlists the help of his lackey Roderigo, who also happens to be in love with Othello’s wife Desdemona.
When Iago sees Cassio touch Desdemona’s hand in greeting, and when Roderigo complains of not being able to break up Othello’s marriage, Iago realizes his opportunity to bring Othello down to ruin.
The substance of the play is all the scheming, and jealousy, and tragic misunderstandings, that take place once Iago’s plan is set in motion. It wouldn’t be Shakespeare if there wasn’t a dramatic ending, which I won’t spoil for anyone here.
In New Boy, the players are the same. The setting is a grade school in the suburbs of Washington D.C. The time frame is in the 1960’s; a time when racism still thrived in the blood and in the minds of many white Americans. The story takes place over one school day late in the year.
Osei is the eponymous new boy. He is the first and only black kid that has ever attended the all-white school.
Dee is an all-American girl – blonde, popular, studious, and a teacher’s pet.
Ian is the villain. He is the school bully. His hanger-on/lackey/sidekick is Rod. People don’t necessarily like Ian, but almost all of them fear him.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, Emilia is Desdemona’s servant and Iago’s wife. In New Boy, this role is played by Mimi. She is Dee’s best friend and Ian’s reluctant girlfriend. It is through Mimi’s point of view in New Boy that the personalities of the characters, the hierarchy of the school, and the politics of the playground are explained.
Caspar is one of the popular boys at school and one of Dee’s friends. He is another all-American golden haired child; he is liked by everyone, good at sports, and kind in general.
Blanca is Caspar’s girlfriend, and plays a minor but important role in the story.
Dee is the first one to see Osei on the playground in the morning before school. She is immediately intrigued by him because he is so different. He carries himself with a confidence that belies his role as new boy and she is drawn to it. Ian also senses the new boy’s confidence. He, however, is threatened by it, and is immediately on his guard. The other kids seem curious and a bit nervous about this new and wholly different presence. The teachers are quite dismayed at having to “deal” with this seemingly unsavory situation so late in the school year, and they immediately mark Osei as a likely troublemaker.
Dee is assigned to assist Osei throughout his first day. They are almost immediately taken with each other. Osei feels lucky to have made a friend so fast, and a popular one at that. Dee likes that Osei is smart, has traveled, and, especially, that he is so unlike anyone she has ever met. She says he is what she has been waiting for.
Throughout the morning, Dee and Osei grow closer, and by morning recess they are officially “going together.” They are sitting together in a patch of sand and Dee touches Osei’s head and he in turn touches her hair. This act outrages one of the teachers, Mr. Brabant, and stokes the ire of Ian.
Ian decides that he isn’t going to let this new boy think that he can “go with” one of the most popular girls on his first day at school. He feels that Osei is a threat to the iron fisted hold in which he controls the playground, which is his territory, and Ian decides to put him in his place.
The loss of a seemingly inane item and a little white lie are enough to set Ian’s plan in motion. He begins playing the characters off each other, insinuating jealousy, distrust, and fear into their minds. A normal series of would be innocent misunderstandings, are instead viewed as proof of the poison Ian has been pouring into the characters’ respective ears.
As this is a retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy, all I can say is that it doesn’t end well for Dee and Osei.
This was a really good story. It was sharply written, and although one could understand the difficulty in retelling a tragedy in the setting of an elementary school playground, Tracy Chevalier pulls it off without a hitch.
Any reader will be able to relate to this story. Whether you were the cool kid in school, the jock, the bully, or the nerd – even if you felt you never had a place, you will find yourself transported back to those days on the school playground. New Boy profoundly expresses what it is to be “other,” and walk into a situation that is new to you, but settled and familiar to others; whether it is being the new kid at school or the first day on a new job, the experience is nearly universal.
I rated this novel five stars because I would recommend it to anyone. The fact that it is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello adds depth and gravitas, but it is not necessary to have any knowledge of the play to appreciate the story in New Boy. I also liked it because it was short and didn’t let my attention waver. It is a book that makes you remember what it is like to feel your whole existence encompassed in the politics of the school playground; something that is easily forgotten as people grow older and realize how big the world is.