Tracy Chevalier brings Shakespeare’s Othello—a harrowing drama of jealousy and revenge—to a 1970s era elementary school playground.
Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day—so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players—teachers and pupils alike—will never be the same again.
The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds—Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant "girlfriend" Mimi—Tracy Chevalier's powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying, and betrayal will leave you reeling.
The latest in Hogarth's Shakespeare series finds Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) relocating Othello to Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s, where sixth grader Osei, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, faces his first morning at a new elementary school, his fourth in six years. The day starts well, as Osei meets popular girl Dee and the pair fall head over heels in love. But seeing the school's only black boy woo a white girl is too much for Ian, a schoolyard bully, and he hatches a plan to ruin their blossoming relationship. Ian drags others into his manipulations, and by the end of the school day, hearts are broken and tragedy strikes the normally placid schoolyard. Chevalier smartly uses her narrative as an opportunity to spin a story commenting on racism in America, and while she weaves Shakespeare's narrative arc into her novel by bouncing between characters' experiences, the final result is only moderately effective. By compressing everything into one morning and afternoon, Chevalier rushes some action, and while the reader may recognize how children tend to amplify emotions, moments are occasionally difficult to believe.