The Shakespearian tragedy of Othello is reimagined in Tracy Chevalier’s mesmerizing book, New Boy.
When Osei arrives at his new school in Washington D.C. in the 1970s, he is the only black boy on the playground. This is not a new experience for him. Osei’s father is a diplomat from Ghana and Osei has had to endure being the new boy in London, Rome, New York and now D.C.
As a black boy in an all-white school, Osei usually keeps himself emotionally distant from the other students while understanding the necessity of showing his prowess in sport and his lack of fear in social situations. He does not expect to meet a girl like Dee – the beautiful good girl, who takes an immediate liking to him.
But a relationship between a black boy and the teacher’s pet is not welcome. When the teachers discover Dee and Osei touching each other on the arms, an intimate gesture, they quickly intervene. Osei is deemed to be coercing Dee in some way, although nothing could be further from the truth.
Many teachers and students find the attraction between the white girl and black boy repulsive. Osei knows the relationship will not be accepted. When Dee displays her physical attraction to Osei, the other children become “witnesses to a line [Osei] had never intended to cross.” (p. 75)
Enter Ian, a boy full of sinister intent. He wants power over the other children and decides that he will shift the situation for his own benefit by creating chaos between Dee and Osei, and the other students.
Ian manipulates the children on the playground, convincing Osei that Dee is two-timing him with Casper, the golden boy. Although the rest of the students fear him, none are willing to stand up to Ian, and he bullies with impunity. His ability to cause fist fights on the playground and make friends despise each other is uncanny. He sets in motion a series of events that lead to a violent outburst from Osei, and a tragic ending.
All of New Boy takes place in one day in a schoolyard. Although we know the outcome of Othello, Chevalier’s novel is a book you won’t be able to put down. Chevalier paints a vivid picture of the racial divide between white and black in America, while remaining true to Shakespeare’s observations about human folly and its often tragic outcomes.