Sunday, April 30, 2017

New Boy - by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is a 2017 addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series that began in October 2015. At that time, Crown Publishing invited a group of notable novelists each to retell one of Shakespeare’s classic plays as a Shakespeare-inspired novel written in their own style, and Chevalier’s novel is based upon Shakespeare’s Othello. New Boy was preceded by four earlier Hogarth Shakespeare books and will be followed by perhaps three others. 

I believe these to be the Hogarth Shakespeare books published to date:
Jeanette Winterson – The Gap of Time (based upon The Winter’s Tale)
Howard Jacobson – Shylock Is My Name (based upon The Merchant of Venice)
Anne Tyler – Vinegar Girl (based upon The Taming of the Shrew)
Margaret Atwood – Hag-Seed (based upon The Tempest)
Tracy Chevalier – New Boy (based upon Othello)  (June 6, 2017)

I believe, too, that these are the books yet to be published: 
      Jo Nesb√≥ – an as yet untitled book based upon Macbeth
      Edward St. Aubyn – an as yet untitled book based upon King Lear
      Gillian Flynn- an as yet untitled book based upon Hamlet

As far as I can tell, the Nesb√≥ book was originally scheduled to precede New Boy but has yet to make its appearance.  The St. Aubyn book is scheduled for April 2018, and the Gillian Flynn take on Hamlet for January 2021.

Chevalier has taken the heart of Shakespeare’s Othello tragedy and transferred it from its original time and setting to a 1970s Washington D.C. school playground.  New Boy is the story of a boy’s first day as a new fifth grade elementary student in a D.C. suburb where he becomes the only black child in the school.  The school year is down to its final month, and most of the fifth-graders have known each other now for the better part of six years.  They are shocked to find a new student among them at this late date – especially a boy from Ghana with whom they seem to have nothing at all in common. 

Tracy Chevalier
Osei is so different from every other child on the playground that he immediately attracts the attention of every child there.  Most of the children are simply curious, but the fifth-grade bully (Ian) is acutely aware that Osei is a potential threat to his reign of terror, and the little girl (Dee) assigned to show him around the school on his first day soon finds herself falling in love with the new boy.   Dee’s reaction to Osei, though, is the last straw for Ian, and he is determined to destroy any chance of friendship between the most popular girl in the fifth grade and the new boy even before it has a chance to get started. 

New Boy is divided into natural breaks in the school day: Before School, Morning Recess, Lunch, Afternoon Recess, and After School.  During each of these segments, Dee and Osei grow closer and closer while Ian manipulates the other fifth-grade students in his plot to destroy that relationship.  By the end of the day, friendships have been destroyed, fights endured, student and teacher reputations destroyed, and lives changed forever – and not for the better.

Not at all surprisingly, the Hogarth Shakespeare novels work well as standalone novels and can be enjoyed that way, but readers familiar with Shakespeare’s plots will especially enjoy noting where and how the plots of the novels intersect with the Shakespeare plays. The Hogarth Shakespeare series is one not to be missed.

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