You know that feeling when you’re a child and someone tells you that the young love or heartbreak you’re feeling “won’t matter” in the future? Though in many cases this may the truth, the trivialization of young love sure does sting, because in those moments, nothing has ever felt so real, powerful, or moving. Tracy Chevalier paints the romance of two 11-year-olds without a strand of patronization and allows us to feel those rapid-fire feelings right along with her beautifully portrayed characters.
In a school yard reenactment of Shakespeare’s Othello, Osei, a young Ghanian boy, embarks upon his first day as the only black individual at a Washington, DC Elementary school. As is the case with many of Shakespeare’s plays, the entirety of the story takes place in just one short day, and the lovers come together in an instant and passionate fashion. Othello is represented by Osei, the new boy, and Desdemona is embodied by Dee, a popular girl who is held at high esteem by students and teachers alike, and Iago’s part is played by the school bully, Ian. Though Chevalier does a remarkable job displaying the relevance of this timeless Shakespeare classic on the playground of a 1970’s DC school, I found myself mainly compelled by the intricacies of both her characters and their interactions.
Though Osei is stoic and seemingly fearless upon the soil of his new school, the way his eyes fall upon Dee and his playful smirks in her direction make for a more real love story than I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, their first romantic interaction is not kissing or deciding to “go together,” such as the interactions between the other children; it is a simple embrace, a hand placed upon a blushing cheek, and actual feelings of excitement under the gaze of another. Their love story is wholesome, adorable, and passionate all at once. Naturally, even something as innocent as Osei’s hand on Dee’s cheek creates a dramatic uproar on the playground and paves way for disgust, interference, and exclusion from those around them.
Though it’s easy to fall under the false notion that racism no longer exists, at least not to the degree that it did during the times of Othello or even Osei, the tiny remarks and actions made throughout the narrative remind us that it still very much does. Even as much as the school principal declaring Osei to be “less fortunate” than the other students even though Osei lived in a privileged part of town and his father was a well-to-do diplomat. From the moment Osei was spotted on the playground he was painted as “other” and understood primarily through his difference than his sameness.
The interpersonal relationships between friends, love interests, students and teachers, and children and parents in New Boy put forth an eerie sense of nostalgia, almost as if the story is being told in black and white. Nothing about this story is sensationalized, it is simply told. Truly, childhood is simple, there is a consistent sense of comfortable discomfort, and anything new creates waves and inevitably, drama. Though this story is riddled with tragedy, it is told in such a hauntingly beautiful way, the reader almost has to take a step back to notice the true horror of it all.
New Boy grapples with real, tragic, infuriating topics, but it does so in a way that makes you want to read more. With the introduction of each new character you simply need to know more. She captures the nuances of childhood love and drama in a way that makes it real and applicable to all readers. Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy will lull you into a dreamlike state, have you clenching your fists, and have you tearing up all at once. Be prepared, this is not a book you will soon forget.