CBR9 Review #103

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

I’ve not read all the Hogarth Shakespeare project books yet, but I do like literary adaptations of classic works. The Austen Project books have not all been amazing, but most of the interpretations have been original and engaging, and they’ve shown me how a classic work rooted in its time finds its legs in a different century. Tracy Chevalier, whose historical fiction is among the few that I will read as a matter of necessity (with the exception of At the Edge of the Orchard), takes a turn with Shakespeare. And her play is Othello.

If you’ve read the play Othello, you’ll know about the gender and racial tensions that play into the conflict of the story. Chevalier transposes them to 1970s Washington, D.C., where an ambassador’s son, Osei, finds himself at a new school at the end of 5th grade. Used to being an outcast, he determines to tough it out until he is introduced to Dee, the pretty and popular golden girl of the grade. She befriends him eagerly and innocently, and this sets the stage for Ian to completely overturn the school before the day is through.

Chevalier packs a tight and wrenching story into a day. The tension is constant throughout the book and when the conflict finally explodes, you’re still not ready for what transpires. I found this to be a masterful retelling of the original play, while giving it an infusion of contemporary identity politics that we can resonate with to this day. Further, because it is transposed to children, the conflict and moral dilemmas add an extra urgency and heartbreak. This was a fast read, but also a very stressful one.

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