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Chevalier’s “New Boy” retells “Othello” on the playground

Lovers of the Bard rejoice! Another Hogarth Shakespeare offering has arrived!

Hogarth, an imprint of Crown Publishing, is continuing their series of literary reimaginings of the works of William Shakespeare. The latest offering is “New Boy” (Hogarth, $25), Tracy Chevalier’s retelling of “Othello.”

(The previous four in the series are Jeanette Winterson’s “The Gap of Time” (based on “The Winter’s Tale”); Howard Jacobson’s “My Name is Shylock” (“The Merchant of Venice”); Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl” (“The Taming of the Shrew”); and Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed” (“The Tempest”). You should read them if you haven’t already.)

“New Boy” transfers the action of “Othello” to a suburban middle school in 1970s-era Washington DC. Despite the seeming incongruity of that shift, the story is actually a beautiful fit, hitting all the narrative high marks while informing the proceedings with an innocence that makes the tale’s tragedy all the more impactful.

Osei Kokote is stepping onto the playground of his fifth school in as many years. His father’s job – he’s a diplomat from Ghana – requires a lot of movement for Osei and the rest of the family. He’s been the new boy enough times to know that he’ll need to get someone on his side quickly. So when the vivacious, popular Dee takes a liking to him, things are looking up.

Unfortunately, Osei (or O, as he prefers to be called) is still a black boy in a predominantly white school in the 1970s. This results in a fair amount of resistance to the idea of him getting close to a nice young girl like Dee – resistance that comes from students and teachers alike.

But the person it bothers the most is Ian, the bully whose control of the schoolyard has heretofore been unchallenged. Ian hates the idea of Dee and O being together, and so sets into motion plans to tear the two of them apart. He draws some of the other children into his scheme – his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, his sycophantic toady Rod and the school golden boy Casper are all pulled into Ian’s tween Machiavellianism.

Over the course of a single school day, love rises and falls. Alliances are made and broken and mended and broken again. And the lives of these young people – just one month away from the end of another school year – are irrevocably, irreparably altered.

One might think moving a tragedy like “Othello” to a middle school would prove incongruous, but there’s a remarkable smoothness to Chevalier’s execution of the concept. The truth is that the playground can play host to power struggles and acts of cruelty not dissimilar to what you find on the Shakespearean stage; additionally, it’s not difficult to argue that many of the original’s military men have elements of the squabbling sixth-grader in their respective characters.

“New Boy” reads like the most sophisticated YA novel you’ve ever encountered. The youth of the characters is played naturalistically and honestly, yet still manages to elicit much the same pathos that Othello’s tragic path does. The depth of connection between the original work and this new one is astonishing; Chevalier builds parallels within parallels that are both unexpectedly creative and exquisitely apt.

Seriously – it is legitimately stunning how well the narrative transfers. It is clean and clever and emotionally charged, filled with moments that reflect perfectly the source material while never straying from the truths of the new setting.

Even the more sophisticated thematic issues are handled with aplomb. O deals with systemic racism as everyone around him projects their prejudices onto him. The hierarchal layers of deception inherent to the original are present and accounted for. Even the at-times intense sexuality of “Othello” is translated, albeit in a manner that matches more appropriately with adolescents awash in the hormonal maelstrom of puberty.

In case it isn’t clear, I LOVE the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I find it to be an inspired and compelling way to cast the great narratives of the Bard into a new light. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they’ve enlisted a horde of incredibly talented novelists to help bring the project to fruition – a horde into which Tracy Chevalier fits nicely.

“New Boy” is another outstanding entry in what is proving to be one of the most – if not THE most - rewarding literary endeavors of the decade. Tracy Chevalier’s take on the Moor of Venice blends innocence and darkness in a way that is both unanticipated and incredibly effective. It is powerful and thoughtful and captivating, a book you’ll want to savor even as you tear through its too-few pages.

“Beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

- Iago, “Othello” Act III, scene iii

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