- - Thursday, July 13, 2017




By Tracy Chevalier

Hogarth Shakespeare, $25, 204 pages

In the fifth of the Hogarth Press Shakespeare series, “New Boy,” Tracy Chevalier transplants her version of Shakespeare’s “Othello” from 16th century Venice and Cyprus to a 1970s Washington D.C. suburban school playground. But while it is an interesting and original idea, it doesn’t quite work.

Osei Kokote, the son of a Ghanian diplomat recently posted to Washington, is the new boy in the sixth grade, entering elementary school just a month before the end of the term, after which the sixth graders all move to a junior high school. He is the only black child in the school.

It is Osei’s fourth school in six years, after Rome, London, and New York. “O,” as he is called, is used to being singled out: “In the past when kids had said or done things — left bananas on his desk or made hooting noises like monkeys or whispered to each other that he smelled different or asked him if his grandparents had been slaves — Osei had preserved enough distance to cushion himself from the blow so that it didn’t hurt… . It was the more subtle things that got to him. The kids who were friendly at school but didn’t ask him to their birthday parties even when they had invited the rest of the class.”

In the Washington school, he is again an exotic outsider. Only Dee (short for Daniela), the most popular girl in his class, immediately befriends him. “They looked at each other, and the simple link of letters standing in for their names made them burst out laughing. O had beautiful straight teeth, a flash of light in his dark face that sparked something inside her.” “This is what I have been waiting for she thought. This.”

As Shakespeare’s “Othello” explains, Desdemona “lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d; /And I lov’d her, that she did pity them,” so Dee likes O because he is different. “‘Tell me more about Ghana,’ she said, just to hear him talk.”

They exchange pencil boxes as O was forced to use his older sister’s outgrown strawberry embosssed box when he couldn’t find his own. Romance quickly follows to the discomfort of the class.

Ian is the class bully. A malevolent, sadistic boy, “not the most popular with the girls … [he] was the shrewdest. The most calculating. The quickest to respond to a new situation and turn it to his advantage.” Sometimes he demands younger children’s lunch money. He enjoys spinning the merry-go-round too fast, making the fourth graders scream. Osei, confident and exotic, is a threat.

With the aid of his whiney side-kick, Ron, Ian hatches a plan to bring down O, Dee and Casper, the sixth grade’s most popular boy who befriends O. As Ian brings his plot to fruition, he echoes Iago’s words — “This is the night, That either makes me, or fordoes me quite”— musing that “It would be satisfying to take them all down — not just the black boy, but the golden boy and golden girl of the school too… . Of course, there was a clear danger that he could fall with them, but the risk of that was as exhilarating as the power he wielded.”

The strawberry pencil box becomes the bait as Ian sows the seeds of jealousy and anger in O’s mind. He “began to think he was not going to have to do much more —

the poison was taking hold, and he could simply stand back and watch it spread. He just had to be careful to seem detached, and deny any involvement.” Ian succeeds in destroying Dee and O, as well as Mimi, the girl who unwittingly helped him, but who becomes his accuser. He will not go unpunished.

Miss Chevalier’s tale is moving as she depicts the new boy’s strength in dealing with his humiliation and pain. “‘Why does being black have to hurt so much’” O laments to his sister.” She parallels well with Shakespeare’s plot: Dee’s admiration and innocence; Ian’s Machiavellian machinations, seduction and use of Mimi; the roles played by Ron and Casper; even the strawberries. But there are problems with “New Boy.”

The tone of the novel is reminiscent of young adult fiction. The age of the children seems disparate to their emotions and conduct. Appropriately, the boys play kickball and the girls jump rope and play hopscotch. They seem overly naive (Dee exclaims “What an exotic life, to need a taxi!”); yet their sexuality appears beyond their years (Casper and his girlfriend, Blanca, kiss rapturously and at length in front of the other children).

Othello and Desdemona are not romantic Romeo and Juliet. They are subject to powerful physical attraction. The sexuality expressed in Miss Chevalier’s playground seems more appropriate for 13-year olds about to enter high school, an age when passion and hormones dictate conduct.

While one is willing to believe that in a 1970s suburban Washington school a black child is an anomaly, it strains credulity that the sixth grade teacher would call Osei a “nigger” in front of the class; that O would refer to Dee as a whore; or that all of this could take place in a single day.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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