Thursday, June 1, 2017
Being the New Boy
New Boy is the fifth installment in the "Hogarth Shakespeare Series", where famous authors offer retellings or re-imaginings of Shakespeare's most well-known works. I've read each of them and, for me, the magic combination is when the author makes her/his work a good story first, and draws in sneaky Shakespeare bits second. The book should be able to stand on its own, without the reader having to have read the original play beforehand to make sense of it. Tracy Chevalier's contribution New Boy is a solidly enjoyable read that is enhanced with some familiarity with the source material. Through the author's choice of time, characterization, plotting, and language that the world of Shakespeare is opened up to a wider and more modern audience.
Based on the play Othello the Moor of Venice, Chevalier's story takes place over one day in a sixth grade American elementary school class. You might think that it's a stretch to recast the characters as children, but in fact it's a stroke of genius. The relationships are dripping with drama and intrigue, and the action so heightened and desperate that it actually is quite a perfect fit. At that age, around 12 years old, adolescence is budding, and kids are discovering the opposite sex as potentially desirable. Relationships form and dissolve within a very condensed timeframe, a truth that also lends itself nicely to the world of New Boy.
The story is set in the 1970's in a suburb of Washington, DC. I've spent quite a bit of time there, and it's a truth that the cities around the capital are primarily white, while the inner-city area of DC is much more diverse. This was much more so the case in New Boy. The unnamed school in the unnamed DC suburb is entirely white. White students are taught by white teachers, and the school is overseen by white administrators. It is the introduction of a wealthy African family, and specifically their black son, that throws the embedded, systematic, and outward racism of the community into sharp focus.
There are no Moor's in New Boy. Instead of Othello, there is Osei Kokote. Born in Ghana to a diplomat father and well-to-do mother, he has lived in many cities around the world before the DC suburbs. In every location, he has faced overt and direct discrimination due to the color of his skin. Doormen refused to acknowledge him, teachers assumed he was cheating on assignments when he got good grades, fellow students left bananas on his desks. From living in many places, he is seasoned at being The New Boy in school and all the pitfalls that come along with it. On his first day at the suburban school he is paired with Dee (Desdemona), a popular girl who comes from a very strict and conservative family. The two of them strike up a fast friendship and, by lunchtime, are a couple. Witnessing this is school bully Ian (Iago), who sees the new boy as a threat to the power he holds over the rest of the school. He decides to enlist his reluctant girlfriend Mimi (Emilia) to discover something he can use to his advantage. Other characters include the golden boy Casper (Cassio), his on-again/off-again girlfriend Blanca (Bianca), and Ian's sidekick Rod (Roderigo). If you're familiar with the characters in Othello, you'll already know how these students interact and form their power struggles and relationships. If not, you'll pick up on the subtle and dynamic goings on easily.
As was mentioned already, the entire contents of the story extend over a single day. The book is broken into 5 parts: Before School, Morning Recess, Lunch, Afternoon Recess, and After School. Although some classroom action is described, the majority of the plot happens in the playground. It really is a microcosm for the world at large - power plays, romantic relationships built and broken, reputations built and destroyed, games of kickball to assert dominance, rope jumping and gossiping, and so much more. The schoolyard is where Ian lurks, sets up his dominoes, then sits back and watches them fall. It's where the pivotal scenes between Osei and Dee take place, and it's where the climax of the day's activities finally finds denouement. Hearts are broken, pains are dealt, and people's true colors are revealed.
The language of New Boy is such that it really could be consumed in a single sitting. Perhaps because the protagonists are 12 year old children, only on the cusp of adolescence, the phrasing and detail is kept at a young adult level. While this might be less appealing for readers of adult literature, for a student who might be overwhelmed by the ancient-feeling language of Shakespeare, this novel may be a way in to the story and its study. And just because the dialogue is simplistic doesn't mean that the story itself doesn't hold some complexities.
New Boy is truly a story on many levels, and for many different readers. It is a young adult novel about a day in the life of a new elementary school student. It's a discussion of the casual and overt racism that is so endemic in our culture. It's a retelling of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays - Othello. For any and all of these reasons, I would highly recommend giving this latest installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare Series a try.