Hi again! On Saturday I read a book recommended by Jo’s Book Blog, and I absolutely loved it! ‘New Boy’ is a retelling of Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’, but instead of being set in Jacobean times, it is set in a 1970s elementary school playground. I thought this idea was really interesting, and I was really excited to read a retelling of my favourite Shakespeare play!
The book follows one day in the life of a group of 11-year olds at elementary school. The main focus is the arrival of a new boy, Osei, who is from Ghana, and who, unlike everyone else in the elementary school (and basically the whole town), is black. Osei soon becomes involved with Dee, the popular girl of the school, and Osei’s growing presence in the playground leads to Ian and Rod conspiring against him, and, with the help of Mimi, they turn Osei against Dee, making him think that Dee has been cheating on him with Casper.
For anyone that has read the original play, this story line is clearly very similar to that of the play, with Osei, Dee, Ian, Rod, Mimi and Casper representing Othello, Desdemona, Iago, Roderigo, Emilia and Cassio respectively. The two teachers, Mr Brabant and Miss Lode, also clearly represent Brabantio, Desdemona’s over-protective father, and Lodovico, a minor character in the play.
What I really liked about this book was the setting. I thought that the use of a retelling of Shakespeare’s play in a 1970s setting was a really good idea, as, although there would still be racist undertones in a small, modern-day town in America, the 1970s were still a time of black oppression, and the ideas relating to the radical aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the clear racism of the teachers at the school, provide an excellent backdrop to the action of the playground.
I thought the racist undertones in the book worked really well, with the use of characters such as Mr Brabant showing the great racism of this era. The fact that Osei is the only black student also singles him out, and so shows that, even though there was perhaps not physical segregation during the 1970s, ideas about segregation were still prevalent during this time.
The fact that Mr Brabant clearly has a problem with Osei touching and being near Dee shows the prejudices relating to interracial couples, and Mr Brabant sees Osei as aggressive and sexual because of his racial stereotype, a stereotype which is also considered in Shakespeare’s play.
When my mum was at school in the 1980s, there was only one black student in her entire school, which was in a small English mining village, and when I went to the same school years later, there were only two black students, and they were brother and sister, which shows that these tight-knit communities were incredibly white-dominated. Therefore, by using the arrival of a new black student, as well as the backdrop of a racist America, the racism that runs throughout the action in the playground is exaggerated, and the novel is given an interesting and relevant setting.
I also really loved spotting the similarities and differences between the original play and the action in the book. I loved the way that Ian’s motives for messing with Osei were just as confused as Iago’s motives in the actual play, with Ian conspiring against Osei because he worries about his growing power over the playground, as well as because of his race and the prejudices built up in his mind. I also liked how Chevalier presented a direct motive for Mimi’s action regarding the pencil-case, as in the original play, a great flaw, in my opinion, is the lack of a given motive for Emilia giving the handkerchief to Iago.
I thought the fact that Chevalier used a strawberry-spotted pencil-case instead of a handkerchief was also a really good idea, as it put the play into the context of the playground, and so meant that the story was much more believable. The sexual undercurrents of the novel were also interesting, and reflected the great sexuality of the original play, with the use of strawberries in this novel clearly representing sexuality and love, as the handkerchief represents these things in Shakespeare’s play.
I really liked the use of characters in this novel, and I thought that the way that each character was created using the character traits suggested in the play made the novel really enjoyable. As an example, the use of Blanca to represent the Courtesan Bianca shows a great amount of detail and research, with Blanca being incredibly attention-seeking, constantly showing off her mid-drift, for example, thus showing the links between the original play and the novel, but the way that Chevalier managed to put the characters into the more modern-day context.
The only thing I would say that was slightly disappointing was that, in the play, you can’t help but admire Iago for his cunning and meticulous planning, whereas in this book, there was, for me, no admiration for Ian, only hatred, and so clearly the character representing Iago in this novel was less two-sided than the Iago of the original.
Overall I thought this was a brilliant book, and I really enjoyed the clear parallels between this book and the original play. I thought the use of a 1970s setting was a great idea, and really exaggerated the racial undertones that underpin Ian’s reasons for conspiring against Osei. The use of a backdrop of racial hatred and radical black rights protests also made the book very interesting and exaggerated the clear prejudices created in the playground, by not only the children, but also the teachers.
There are so many more things I could say that I loved about this book, but I’ll leave you to discover all its excellent details. I liked this book because I liked spotting the similarities to the play, but I think that you could also enjoy it having not read Shakespeare’s ‘Othello.’
Thanks again to Jo’s Book Blog for the recommendation, I really enjoyed reading the book! Have you read ‘New Boy’ by Tracy Chevalier? Did you enjoy it? Did you know the original play before reading the novel? Let me know all your thoughts in the comments below!
Currently reading: ‘The House on the Strand’ by Daphne Du Maurier