September 23, 2017

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Bard in the yard

Shakespeare classic re-imagined in 1970s D.C. school setting

Faced with the prospect of writing an update of Shakespeare’s Othello, it’s unlikely that one’s first thought would be to set it in a fifth-grade schoolyard, given its themes of racism, domestic violence and murder.

But this is precisely what Tracy Chevalier has done in her latest novel, New Boy, which retells Shakespeare’s story of intense, violent jealousy and racial alienation as a tale of schoolyard allegiances and romance gone awry.

Chevalier, known for historical fiction like the mega-bestselling Girl With a Pearl Earring, sets New Boy in an all-white public school in 1970s Washington, D.C., where the schoolyard is a site of jockeying for position and flirtation among the painfully pubescent 11-year-olds who sit atop the school’s social hierarchy.

While the general atmosphere of constant gossip and obsession with social place and reputation that characterizes Othello translates easily to the new setting, the specifics of the setting must necessarily be altered, and status is defined not by military skill but by success in games of kickball and double dutch.

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Faced with the prospect of writing an update of Shakespeare’s Othello, it’s unlikely that one’s first thought would be to set it in a fifth-grade schoolyard, given its themes of racism, domestic violence and murder.

But this is precisely what Tracy Chevalier has done in her latest novel, New Boy, which retells Shakespeare’s story of intense, violent jealousy and racial alienation as a tale of schoolyard allegiances and romance gone awry.

David Azia / The Associated Press files</p><p>Tracy Chevalier’s new novel recasts Shakespeare’stragedy as a tale of schoolyard allegiances.</p>

David Azia / The Associated Press files

Tracy Chevalier’s new novel recasts Shakespeare’stragedy as a tale of schoolyard allegiances.

Chevalier, known for historical fiction like the mega-bestselling Girl With a Pearl Earring, sets New Boy in an all-white public school in 1970s Washington, D.C., where the schoolyard is a site of jockeying for position and flirtation among the painfully pubescent 11-year-olds who sit atop the school’s social hierarchy.

While the general atmosphere of constant gossip and obsession with social place and reputation that characterizes Othello translates easily to the new setting, the specifics of the setting must necessarily be altered, and status is defined not by military skill but by success in games of kickball and double dutch.

Into this world, already rife with intensely tangled networks of violence and budding sexuality, the novel introduces Osei, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat who has recently been transferred to D.C.

Osei, the only black student in the schoolyard, immediately grabs the attention, for better or for worse, of all of his new classmates. Foremost among these is Dee, whose status as the favourite of her teacher, Mr. Brabant, is threatened by her increasing attraction to the almost irresistibly different Osei.

Osei’s combination of racial difference and physical and intellectual prowess radically alters the social dynamics of the schoolyard. And poised to take advantage of the new order of things is Ian, the school’s resident bully and extortionist, who views Osei with an unreasoning loathing, far beyond his classmates’ fluctuating feelings of fascination and revulsion.

As one would expect from an adaptation of Othello, Ian manipulates events so as to drive a violent wedge between Osei and Dee, and, in so doing, throws the society of the schoolyard into general chaos. Dee and Osei’s budding romance is sundered; the school’s most popular boy, Casper, is shamed; and Ian’s own, mostly unwilling, girlfriend and accomplice falls casualty to his obsession with Osei.

New Boy is a smart, tense, insightful take on Othello. Rather than rigorously following the play’s script, Chevalier takes liberties with the story. For example, she gives Osei a sister whose immersion in 1970s African-American counterculture contrasts his strict obedience of his parents and contextualizes his eventual rage-filled rejection of Dee.

One of New Boy’s great strengths is the way in which it makes sense of one the most difficult aspects of the play: the intensity and rapidity of Othello’s denunciation of Desdemona, his turn from devoted husband to murderer in the space of mere days.

Filtered through the lens of adolescents the story works perfectly. The characters in New Boy are just coming into themselves as social, sexual beings — flailing around, trying to find their places within their society while subject to constant surveillance and judgment by hormone-addled creatures like themselves.

Every action in this fishbowl takes on an extra level of intensity and whole social systems rise and fall over the course of a lunch hour.

Reimagining the story in this context, Chevalier gives us a story that is timely and engaging, a novel that is well worth reading in its own right, no matter its lineage.

Brandon Christopher teaches Shakespeare and adaptation studies at the University of Winnipeg.

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