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New Boy

New Boy

Blurb

New Boy is one of the retellings of Shakespeare that was commissioned by the Hogarth Press as part of a series of retellings commissioned as part of events coinciding with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

New Boy is set in a schoolyard in 1970’s Washington DC and revolves around the arrival of Osei Kokote, the only black boy in a school full of white children. It is Osei’s fourth school in six years and he knows he needs to work quickly to gain an ally so he is pleased when that ally turns out to be Dee, the most popular girl in school.

Not everyone is happy about the budding relationship though and before long Ian is setting plans into motion that can only end in violence.


Our Review

Othello has always been one of my favourite stories written by Shakespeare so I was thrilled to be offered a copy of this book for review. Additionally, Tracy Chevalier is an author who never fails to write a fantastic story.

New Boy is one of the retellings of Shakespeare that was commissioned by the Hogarth Press as part of a series of retellings commissioned as part of events coinciding with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

This is the second book I have read in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, the first was Hagseed by Margaret Atwood.

I thought this retelling was fantastic and captured all the essential elements of Othello which make it the beloved classic it is known to be.

New Boy is set in a schoolyard in 1970’s Washington DC and revolves around the arrival of Osei Kokote, the only black boy in a school full of white children. It is Osei’s fourth school in six years and he knows he needs to work quickly to gain an ally so he is pleased when that ally turns out to be Dee, the most popular girl in school.

Not everyone is happy about the budding relationship though and before long Ian is setting plans into motion that can only end in violence.

“Dee noticed him before anyone else. She was glad of that, held on to it. It made her feel special to have him to herself for a few seconds, before the world around them skipped a beat and didn’t recover for the rest of the day.”

The arrival of Osei in the school exposes both casual racisms and the prevalence of an institutionalised racism within the school and the lives of the children. The overt racism displayed by teachers, such as Mr Brabant, was the hardest to read.

Throughout the book, he makes derogatory comments about O clearly influenced by the colour of his skin.

Osei is identified as an outsider in the playground from the very beginning merely because of the colour of his skin. Dee herself informs the reader that there are no other black children in the school or black residents in her neighbourhood. This is despite Washington DC being nicknamed ‘Chocolate city’ because of its high proportion of black people. Her own mother won’t let her watch black singing and dancing on TV.

Dee’s teachers ask her to look after Osei and show him around the school. Via Dee’s questions we learn that he is from Ghana and that his name means ‘noble’. Osei recognises that his name is difficult for people to pronounce and tells Dee to call him ‘O.’ He also tells his fellow classmates to call him O as he knows his name would further make him an outsider and object of ridicule. Thus, before he even meets people he has been stripped of an important part of his identity.

In the playground Ian spots O immediately and sees him as a potential threat. He recognises that he owns the playground within minutes of entering it and he is horrified to see Dee paying him so much attention.

“Ian was not the tallest boy in the year, nor the fastest. He did not kick the balls the farthest, or jump the highest when shooting baskets, or do the most chin-ups on the monkey bars. He did not speak much in class, never had gold stars pasted to his work, did not win certificates at the end of year for best mathematics or best handwriting or best citizenship. He was not the most popular with the girls – Casper claimed that honour.

Ian was the shrewdest. The most calculating. The quickest to respond to a new situation and turn it to his advantage.”

I could not read Ian without seeing ‘Iago’. For me he was every bit as cunning and loathsome. Ian is essentially a bully who is more concerned with gaining and maintaining power than caring for those around him.

Ian admits that the appeal of his reluctant girlfriend Mimi was that she was ‘out of step’ with the other children in the playground. Even his ‘best friend’, Rod, is someone he sees as a useful tool to maintain his status.

Mimi plays a big part in the events that unfold in the playground that day. In a large part her involvement comes from her fear of Ian but racism does play its part. Mimi falls into the category of ‘I am not racist but’. She comments to Dee about what other people will think about her and O but is quick to say that of course she doesn’t think those thinks. However, she does acknowledge to herself that, there was no ignoring the colour of his skin.

O for his part feels incredibly privileged to have Dee as his ally. He not only finds her beautiful but feels she is ‘lit from within.’

O is used to all the forms of racism exhibited within the school, even that exhibited by the teachers. He tells Dee about several instances where teachers have seemed displeased with him if he excels in school and treated it as atypical. Whereas if he messes up it is seen as inevitable because of the colour of his skin, it is the embodiment of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As the afternoon goes on tensions in the playground build up and eventually erupt.

At one point one of the teachers Mrs Lode says that the colour of his skin has nothing to do with it. However, after having read this I would suggest that the colour of his skin has everything to do with it.

 

 

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