New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

I have always thought that Othello is a pretty unpleasant play about possessiveness and jealousy, human traits which surface all over the place and across time and culture. This unusual interpretation of the story focuses on the experience of Osei Kokote, an eleven year old black boy from Ghana who is trying to fit into as a new student in a predominantly white, suburban school in 1960s Washington DC. He is used to moving schools as his father is in the diplomatic service and he has over time acquired a quietly confident resilient demeanour, which is not always well received.

Although this is written as a novel, it has the stylised atmosphere of a drama with the opening act being set in the playground with all the principal characters ready to play their parts.  Much of the action happens here because it is such a significant social space within which friendships are forged and enemies are made. There will be many adults reading about this school playground  who will remember both the  happy games like skipping and football but also the possibilities of less ‘approved’ activities, physical bullying or name calling which might not be noticed by the too few adult members of staff on duty. It is a dangerous territory with complicated rules that all children must learn to negotiate over time.  The author uses the point of view of Dee, a mature, clever and popular girl to help us see Osei for the first time in the school playground. She watches him trying to get a measure of his new environment and is immediately fascinated:

‘He was moving now. Not like a bear, with his bulky, lumbering gait. More like a wolf, or – Dee tried to think of dark animals- a panther, scaled up from house cats’. 

As he approaches the school doors we witness the casual racism of the teacher, Mr Brabant who remarks ‘ I think I hear drums’ and then he has a brief discussion with another teacher about the boy’s possible origins. This early conversation is sufficient to alert us to the possible problems that Osei might experience.  Dee is given the responsibility of looking after the new boy and to help him to settle into his new class. She is proud to be trusted and continues to observe him as an exotic creature, one who ‘had the most beautifully shaped head, smooth and even and perfectly formed like a clay pot turned on a potter’s wheel’. She is soon concerned to protect him from derogatory remarks from the rest of the class and after only a very short time they have become friends and formed a strong bond that is destined to become more romantic. The pivotal point in their relationship comes when she kindly lets him use her Snoopy pencil case in place of the girly strawberry patterned pencil case that he has with him that used to belong to his older sister, Sisi. Both Osei and Dee know that he needs to present himself in a particular way if he is to be accepted, so they swop. Without giving away too much, this strawberry pencil case becomes very important in the subsequent plot.

Osei is a well-rounded very likeable character who understands the possible pitfalls of being in the minority. Over the years, he and Sisi have learned how to fend off nasty attacks, never telling their parents about their difficulties in school. She no longer lives at home and has become involved with the emerging civil rights movement and interesting information about this is woven into the story. As has happened in most of his previous schools, the principal asks Osei to stand up and tell the class all about Ghana which he does in some detail, but he is understandably mortified when she responds:

‘He may not have had the opportunities that you all enjoy at our school, so I hope you will give him every chance to take part in all we have to offer to less fortunate students’.

There are plenty of generous and friendly children in his class who treat him kindly and he proves himself to be very popular, but there are also darker forces at play. By far the most chilling character in the novel is Ian who, like Iago with Othello, jealously watches Osei and is cruelly determined to assert his power in order to bring about his downfall. He is an outsider who is feared rather than liked by his peers.

‘No one chatted and laughed with him. They hadn’t for a long time. He wasn’t sure exactly how it happened, but he had become the boy they feared but didn’t respect’.  

Ian is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, full of rage who enjoys his reputation as a tough bully with the easily influenced Rod as his sidekick. Aged only eleven, he already has an unpleasantly abusive relationship with Mimi who is a close friend of Dee and he manipulates her to do his dirty work.

The intensity of the emotions, the fickleness of friendship and the fear of being left out or ridiculed is something that I would normally associate with young teenagers. Choosing to make the story about eleven year olds gives a clever twist to this very readable YA novel that is packed with passion and suspense even though it is set in an everyday familiar environment.

Strongly recommended.

Karen Argent

September 2017

( This review first appeared on The Letterpress Project website)

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