This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I read Margaret Atwood’s book in the series, Hag-Seed, a year or so ago but wasn’t crazy about her play within a play retelling of the Tempest. I’m reading Edward St. Aubyn’s contribution to the series now, Dunbar, and not quite sure yet how I feel about his version of Lear. This re-imagined Othello set on the playground of my youth, however, is fantastic. I was immediately drawn to the echoes of that time: monkey bars, playing jacks, jump rope rhymes and the luxury of an unstructured recess. Admittedly, since this was in my wheelhouse, my emotional reaction to the authenticity of the time and place here makes me a little biased.
Chevalier’s Othello is Osei, the son of an African diplomat and the new boy at an all white suburban Washington DC elementary school in the 1970’s. The majority of the story takes place on the playground where the pecking order is exhibited in picking teams for kickball and finding the right seat in a crowded cafeteria. In an era when pubescence is littered with “will you go with me?” relationships that last a week, the super popular Dee gravitates to this new, exotic boy at morning recess. Their mutual attraction catapults them through a single day in the 6th grade. A single day at that age can seem like a lifetime lived in a moment, and that is what Chevalier is so good at capturing here. Burgeoning sexuality, fears about moving to Junior High in the coming year, and dealing with the complexities of bullying are all brought to the surface when Osei’s arrival breaks the kids out of their standard routine. When the class bully, Ian, sees Dee and Osei touch, it sparks an outrage in him. Unable to articulate his discomfort with anything other than a “Don’t like that”, Ian sets a series of actions into motion that will impact everyone at the school.
The juxtaposition of stereotypical school day activities with institutional racism and misogyny really illustrates where it can start and how it gets reinforced or rewarded. The sizing up of social situations and jockeying for position within them starts here and Chevalier does an amazing job of exploring those ideas within the confines of an elementary school without dumbing it down or minimizing its significance. This is a chilling look at how our childhood can shape us and how we can allow what we experience to be shaped by others. The Shakespeare bent is just a bonus.