NEW BOY Tracy Chevalier
I have a confession. I have not read enough Shakespeare. Not even close, not since high school. Fortunately, the literary world conspired to fix this. Through the Hogarth Shakespeare Series, a project launched in 2015, well-known writers have recast the bard’s classics in contemporary settings, which means I get to appreciate Shakespeare without reading Shakespeare. (I should probably be embarrassed about that, too, but I’m enjoying myself too much.) There are eight books—by Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, Jeanette Winterson (my favorite author of all time) and other heavyweights. I’ve only made my way through a few so far.
It’s Othello I want to share. Written by Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, we meet the characters in suburban Washington D.C. in the 1970s. Chevalier’s unique success is that the timeless story of love, fury, betrayal and fear, this time titled New Boy, works both as Shakespeare, and as modern middle school.
The new boy is Osei Kokote, the sixth-grade son of a Ghanaian diplomat. It is his first day. He is the only black kid in school. Along with soulful, beautiful Dee, insightful Mimi and treacherous Ian, these are characters you’ve met before—Desdemona, Emilia, Iago—but really haven’t. The story unfolds over a single day, which as a parent of a fifth grader myself, is believable; when you are 11, life moves quickly. It is that dramatic. How can Ian be so cruel? What will the teachers say about Osei and Dee pairing up? What is Casper going to do?
Set just 40 years ago, New Boy is still Othello. The narrative takes on more serious themes than childhood crushes and playground betrayal. It is painful to watch Osei make himself smaller to make space for the racism of his classmates and teachers, remembering how years earlier he’d learned to choose to play goalie so his classmates wouldn’t have to touch him and nicknaming himself “O” so they wouldn’t have to try to pronounce his name. The love, loyalty and duplicity are real—these are children, but their feelings are no less genuine. And it’s a story of no less beauty for that, too, when (as happens in life and in Shakespeare) a catastrophic series of misunderstandings leads to a terrible end.
This book came to me at a moment when I was suffering; this past summer my dog died. We had only had him for one year (he came to us as a stray rescue), but that year of faithfulness and love was worth all the heartbreak we experienced when we had to say goodbye. Similarly, literary tragedy, whether Othello or New Boy, opens a space to appreciate the sheer beauty of life and love, even when it’s fated to end in loss.
THE FOREVER DOG Bill Cochran
Giving into my tragic impulses, our kids’ selection is also about pet loss: The Forever Dog, by Bill Cochran, illustrated by Dan Anderson. A dog who looks “built from other dogs’ spare parts,” Corky accompanies his boy, Mike, through thick and thin—even when Corky insists on sleeping on Mike’s head! Asked what kind of dog he is, Mike always answers proudly: “my dog.” Mike and Corky have a plan: they will always, always be best friends. It’s the Forever Plan. Like all plans, it works perfectly until it doesn’t. One day, Mike comes home from school to hear from his mom that Corky is at an emergency vet visit and has to stay overnight. The next morning, heartbreak. The vet did everything possible, but Corky was too sick. Mike is sad and alone. And he’s angry. Corky didn’t go through with the plan. Mike didn’t quit—Corky did! Mom offers some perspective. Does Mike remember their good times? Does he remember fetch, and the way Corky slept with Mike every night? Of course. Mike always will remember those times. The Forever Plan can work, but it will be with Corky in Mike’s heart instead of in his bed. Corky and Mike remind us that even in deep sadness, if we can step back and see how we have been transformed—forever—love keeps a home with us.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Corky lives in Mike’s heart. Who lives in your heart?
O, Dee, Mimi, and Mike all experience loss in the aftermath of love. Another Hogarth Shakespeare writer, Jeanette Winterson (The Winter’s Tale as The Gap in Time) writes this; “What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.” Can you tell a story of a wound you carry? Does the perspective granted in the telling offer a sense of the gift as well?
Osei is constantly evaluates his surroundings— how he experiences others and they experience him. Have you ever needed to interact with the world with “double vision” in that way? Or is it already so second-nature to you that you take it for granted?
What’s tragic (in that Shakespearean sense) in your life? Does the idea of tragedy as linking joy and suffering resonate with you?
Sarah Irwin is an Episcopal priest, brewer of beer, mother of two and voracious reader. The column highlights books that ask some of the deeper questions we all face, and approaches them from different perspectives.