New Boy is a brilliant adaptation of Othello by Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Before reading this adaptation – a part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series – I listened to an interview with Chevalier on Shakespeare Unlimited, the Folger Shakespeare Library podcast. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of setting Othello on a 1970’s playground. New Boy did not disappoint. Chevalier managed to age down the events of the story while maintaining the tension of the original story and adding depth. I was genuinely surprised by how engrossed I was by the story when I ultimately knew what was going to happen.
As stated above, the story is set on a playground in the 1970’s. Osei, or O, is new to this Washington D.C. school. Not only is he new, but he is the only boy of color in his class and even the school. He tries to navigate the tricky politics of sixth grade while dealing with his own awareness of racial tension in society. O is understandably inclined to suspicion because of the racism he faces on a daily basis, so he quickly falls for Ian’s tricks and turns against the one person that seemed to not be naturally biased against him.
There was a complex mix of racial bias represented in the novel which added a depth that is still so crucial to consider today. It ranged from well-intentioned but ignorant to outright bigoted. In addition to the racism O faced, he also reflected on his older sister’s growing involvement with Black Power groups and his conflicting emotions about it. The constant racial undertones added an interesting new depth to the story and made the reader think more intensely about discrimination as it was seen at the time and continues today. It made it easy for the reader to understand O distrusting Dee so readily.
Racism was not the only complex issue addressed. We get glimpses at sexual discrimination, the cycle of abuse, and the tension between older and younger generations. Despite coming from a strict household where hair was tightly woven and races were definitely kept separate, Dee is the most willing to accept O into her life and finds herself surprised to find him attractive. She is marginally aware of the shock factor, but doesn’t care. She likes O for who he is and she falls for him hard. This makes many around her uncomfortable, particularly her male teacher, Mr. Brabant. Mr. Brabant has an uncomfortable focus on Dee throughout the story. There is nothing inappropriate implied, but the relationship still makes the reader squirm. All of the girls in the story, like the boys, are beginning to explore their sexuality. Unfortunately, the relationship typically backfires on the girls more often than on the boys.
Finally, we have to talk about Ian one of the tragically underexplored characters in the story. We get quick glimpses into Ian’s home life that help to explain his character motivations, but I was left wanting to know more. Ian came from a household that was poorer than the other students and with a father that was unafraid to use corporal punishment. His brothers, like Ian, were determined to run the school by any means necessary. Typically this meant bullying. I found myself wanting more depth to Ian, like what we saw with O. There was a tragic nature to Ian that was set up well, but ultimately fell short.
Overall, I highly recommend the book. It is a brilliant adaptation that speaks to modern audiences in a powerful way. After reading the final words of the book, I had to take a moment to reflect and come down from the intensity of the ending. I did not expect to be that affected by an adaption and that should be the goal of every such book.