Monday, February 20, 2017

726 (2017 #24). New Boy


by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy is Othello retold - the fifth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series where bestselling authors are commissioned to retell stories from Shakespeare. Tracy Chevalier did this one - fortunately, I have read some of her other works.

Chevalier sets this tragedy in a Washington, DC, school in May 1974, and the main characters are sixth-graders.  According to an interview on YouTube (and her website),

I was 11 in 1974...I grew up in Washington, DC, and lived in an integrated neighborhood and went to a school that was about 80% black, and so I had the unusual experience of being a white minority. And I wanted to write about that, although I have flipped it ... the book opens with a black boy walking onto an all-white playground, and it's about what happens to him over the course of the day.

Chevalier of course simplified the story, removing most of the subplots, but the characters are still recognizable:

  • Othello - "O" or Osei , the son of a Ghanan diplomat, whose name means "noble" in his language.  He is the "new boy" of the title - this is his fourth school in at least three different cities in six years.
  • Desdemona - Dee, short for Daniela, the most popular girl in the sixth grade, although her mother is very strict and she goes home for lunch every day.  She is assigned by their teacher to take care of O on his first day.
  • Iago - Ian, the clever sixth grade bully (and the villain of the play).
  • Emilia - Mimi, Dee's best friend, now "going with" Ian although she wants out of it.
  • Cassio - Casper, the most popular boy in the sixth grade.
  • Roderigo - Rod, Ian's sidekick, who has a crush on Dee.
  • Bianca - Blanca, Dee's and Mimi's friend who is "going with" Casper.
  • Brabantio - Mr. Brabant, the teacher for O, Dee, Casper, and Blanca, a Vietnam veteran.
  • Lodovico - Miss Lode, the teacher for Ian, Mimi, and Rod.
  • Montano - Miss Montano, the school nurse.
  • Duke of Venice - Mrs. Duke, the school principal.

The handkerchief, the symbol of perceived betrayal in the original play, becomes a pencil case.

The book is divided into five sections - before school, morning recess, lunchtime, afternoon recess, and after school - corresponding with the five acts of Shakespeare's play.  Each section begins with a jump rope chant.  Chevalier said she especially enjoyed being able

...to reference ... the games we played, the slang we used, the candy we ate, how school worked, how I felt in school, and all that stuff came rushing back.  It was it was a great experience and very different from what I normally ... write, historical novels that are set ... centuries ago and have nothing to do with me.

Nevertheless, Chevalier's experience with writing historical fiction has her including all sorts of period details from 1974 (songs, TV shows, etc.) that made me appreciate the setting even more.

I also loved the way she worked in the class preparing to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream (page 112).  When Dee tells O she is playing Hermia, Ian overhears.

"Doesn't she fall in love with one boy after another?" Ian interjected.  "She's fickle like that.  Lucky boys."
"Only because of what you do.  It's just magic," Dee explained, as O's face darkened.  "It's a comedy, so it turns out alright in the end."
"Who do you play?" O demanded of Ian.
"He plays Puck," Dee said.  "The head fairy who makes all the mischief happen."

So true!  This is a tragedy of jealousy.  Updating the story to the 1970s also highlights the prejudices that are still relevant today.  I was in sixth grade just a few years before 1974 - and all the ever-changing friendships, crushes, and jealousies of that age ring true.

The book's ending is vague, but I think that is deliberate.  Something bad happens (the play IS a tragedy, with three of the four main characters dead by the end, and the fourth is arrested), but it's not quite clear what.

Highly recommended.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this advance reader edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]



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