What happens when you combine Othello, a racially charged period of history in the US, with a group of junior high schoolers? New Boy. This retelling of Othello sheds new light on the story and sends important messages about racism.
Goodreads summarizes this beautifully: The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970’s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds: Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
Let me begin with my feelings toward the tragedy of Othello. Having read the play in high school, I found it just so terribly tragic. And it is. There’s a very human tendency to jump to conclusions, to see what we want to see, and to not question. In this, it’s this tragic tendency that fuels the emotionally charged plot of Othello.
What Chevalier does well is casting the characters we know so well as junior high schoolers. It is jarring to see these universal feelings of manipulation, jealousy, and envy in this younger age group. No doubt that this is plausible, as children and young adults nowadays have an immense ability for bullying and making mistakes that have fatal consequences. Yet Chevalier takes it one step further and makes a parallel between the children and the teachers. She shows us how fear, and especially racism is learned from adults. This unique perspective makes the whole book more intellectually rich in my opinion.
The writing of the book is incredibly descriptive. It is truly a joy to read the writing because it takes you there. Taking place in the course of a day, evoking narratives like Ulysses, and not only increasing the tension, but illustrating how volatile and powerful the evolution of these emotions are. In terms of characters, these are all the familiar ones we know from the play, but allow us a closer look. By having the narrative alternating, we are given a much deeper look at each of them, something the play is not able to convey.
However, I was a little disappointed by O’s reactions. He is the only black boy in school, and the amount of racism he encounters, not only in that school, was met with cool responses. I am not African American, so I can’t say if this is an accurate response, and I’m not trying to at all!, but I think that it just seemed a little too ‘put together’ for someone in his perspective. I am a woman, and based on my experiences with sexism I have never been able to handle it as well as he does. But that’s just my opinion!
One great reference I want to mention is of cannibalism in a conversation between Dee and O. What makes this worth mentioning, to me, is the way that cannibalism is connected to love and war, historically. The way we ‘consume’ our loved ones and the historical practice of cannibalism in war. Unable to process it for younger ages, as adult readers we can pick up on this reference. This is just one of many unique touches, for example the mention of A Midsummer’s Night Dream roles and the history of Ghana, which elevate the narrative for me.
Just like in Othello, we want the plot to change, for love to win and triumph over racism and manipulation. This constant battle between hope and fate, creates tension in the pit of our stomach. The ending shocked me and I had to read it many times and am still left hanging. Truly well done as a whole, I am pleased not only with the pleasure of reading New Boy, but also with the intellectual touches.
Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for an honest review from First to Read.
What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?
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