Othello retold through schoolyard drama: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
New Boy is the latest book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello with the action transported to a schoolyard in 1970s Washington. Osei is the new boy and the only black kid in a suburban school. He meets Dee, Ian, Mimi, Casper, and Blanca and the stage is set for a first day unlike others. These sixth graders are the big fish in a small pond and their dramas are fast-paced, with relationships and arguments made and broken between lessons. Chevalier uses this setting to make her novel a tense exposition of jealousy, anger, and race, showing how Othello’s themes do not only defy time, but also age.
The book is structured around a single day, with the weird sense of time matching Shakespeare’s strange timeline in Othello and making the novel seem like a play, with far more limited movement of place than in the original text. The characters are bound by the edges of the school grounds, making a claustrophobic setting that cannot contain Osei’s eventual anger or Ian’s manipulation. The presence of the teachers on the edges is similar to the officials and outsiders in Othello who appear but are never able to halt the action. In the case of New Boy, the teachers’ implied and overt racism and uncertainty about how to deal with Osei’s presence actively encourage the pupils in some ways, like Brabantio’s initial opinions of Othello in the play.
Shakespeare’s characters are mapped pretty straightforwardly onto their playground equivalents, though Chevalier is able through the form to give them greater internal lives and backstories, particularly the girls. Dee’s desire for something exciting explains her sudden interest in more worldly Osei, who has lived around the world and whose older sister has given him an awareness of Black Power and other political movements. Ian’s quest for power over fellow students and his desire for self-control are clear, manifesting themselves in his manipulative actions when interfering with schoolyard activities and his anger at his own failings. The stand out character is Mimi, an uncertain girl prone to headaches who, uncomfortable with Ian’s attention, helps him out and later regrets it. She is Shakespeare’s Emilia given more of a chance to have thoughts and emotions about Ian’s actions and about her friend Dee.
The narrative too is obviously that of Othello, with details changed yet the stakes still feeling high. From the vivid picture of childhood jealousies and fears that Chevalier paints, it is easy to be drawn into the world and feel that the reputations and relationships at stake are real to the characters, not just childish preoccupations but how they see their place in the world. Some scenes are clear updates of Shakespearean ones, for example when Mimi re-plaits Dee’s hair whilst they sing along to ‘Killing Me Softly’ and talking about how confusing boys are. This scene is Shakespeare’s made into a 1970s image of two white girls singing along to a song sung by a black woman, not fully aware with how this intersects with exactly what is going on that day.
As part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, New Boy is fairly typical – updating character names, mentioning Shakespeare and his plays in a casual way, changing plot points but giving them the same tension in the narrative as the original – but it is the way in which Chevalier creates a claustrophobic world of childhood jealousy and mistrust set within the larger adult world that makes the novel stand out. It isn’t news that the racism, jealousy, and power struggles in Othello have not lost their relevance four hundred years later, but in New Boy it is glaringly obvious that such issues can be incited to escalation in all kinds of environments. The tragedy of Othello becomes both the tragedy of one dramatic schoolyard in 1970s Washington and the tragedy of how Othello just cannot seem to lose its societal comparisons.