Tracy Chevalier may be best known for her second novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” which has sold more than five million copies. Her novels are usually historical, but Chevalier’s newest novella “New Boy,” retells “Othello” as part of Hogarth’s series of re-imagined Shakespearean plays. The year is updated to 1974, and the locale moved from Venice to Washington, D.C., where all the playground is a stage and all the sixth-graders and teachers merely players on it. The action in “New Boy” takes place during one school day, not over several as in Othello, but like the original play, this is a story of love and jealousy, hatred and bigotry. Chevalier, who was born in D.C., says she “had a bit of the minority experience growing up in Washington D.C.” She was one of a few white kids in her “occasionally tense, but mostly peaceful” fifth grade class. So, it was no great stretch for Chevalier to reverse her own circumstances and create her own flawed and tragic hero: the lone black boy from Ghana named Osei Kokote in a world of “pink-and-cream suburban Americans.”
The son of a Ghana diplomat, Osei, whose name means “noble,” has attended three schools in the past six years. He’s somewhat used to chilly receptions. But on his first day of school in early May, Dee (Chevalier’s stand-in for Desdemona) notices him first. She likes him immediately because he’s new and different and she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. She wants to “go with” him; in this pre-adolescent world, kids “go with” each other trying to act like their older siblings. Sometimes they break up by lunchtime. Aside from Dee, the other kids are wary of Osei for the same reason that Dee likes him – because he’s different and he’s black. The most hateful of the kids is Ian.
Ian is, of course, Chevalier’s Iago. He is shrewd and calculating, the ruler of the playground, his kingdom. So, ’tis “by wit, and not by witchcraft”) that this sixth-grade bully causes, without regard of any harm to himself or anyone else, the destruction of Osei and of Dee.
Ian and his sidekick Rod (Roderigo) plot against the new kid. The other kids have learned their distrust and bigotry from their parents and their teachers. The children’s nascent prejudice is personified in Blanca (Bianca), the archetypal white girl. But their racism is not so terrible compared to the bigotry of one of the teachers: Mr. Brabant, who is blatantly racist. He tells Osei, “I’ve seen your kind before,” and he warns him that the school doesn’t “take kindly” to troublemakers. Shortly, he tells the other teachers, “This school isn’t ready for a black boy.” His insults worsen as the book progresses.
The racially-eruptive climate created by the other kids and the teachers benefits Ian. He gets help from his girlfriend Mimi (Emilia) and from his sidekick Rod, who’s in love with Dee, to make Osei jealous. A strawberry pencil case becomes the equivalent of Desdemona’s handkerchief, “the lie that changed everything.” And all the while, just as Othello trusted Iago, Osei trusts Ian as his friend.
The gravity of Osei’s situation may not seem as profound as Othello’s, but Chevalier manages to turn this story into a true tragedy, and to label it as young adult literature shortchanges this novella. It doesn’t possess the literary heft of other books in the Hogarth series like Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed” or Howard Jacobson’s “Shylock Is My Name.” But “New Boy” will appeal to adult Shakespeare lovers and to young adults who may only know Shakespeare because of a couple teenage lovers in Verona.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com or through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/
By Tracy Chevalier
Hogarth, 288 pages