The One with Shakespeare in 6th Grade

Tracy Chevalier, Black Boy (2017)

With some determination and patience, I have come out of the Middles… by finishing some books, and dropping others (the short story collections, which I may always come back to anyway). And because I don’t want to forget my train of thoughts, I’m skipping over a dozen of book reviews to address the question: was Tracy Chevalier right to transpose Othello to an elementary school?

To be frank, I was rather unconvinced. Yes, it was a daring move. Othello is Osei Kokote, a diplomat’s son from Ghana, arriving in an all-white elementary school of D.C. (in the 1970s). He’s in 6th grade, which makes him 11 years old. Desdemona is Dee, a blond angel and teacher’s pet who is loved and admired all around the playground. The whole tragedy unfolds within a day, from first bell to recess to lunch to after-school. I found myself torn between two different attitudes:

If you start this book knowing it’s a retelling, it becomes rather obvious and the pieces of the tragedy click together without much surprise. You appreciate the subtle nods to Shakespeare here and there, but you’re just here for the performance, not really for the story itself.

If you don’t know about Othello, then the story seems a bit weird. I don’t quite believe that  11-year-olds are able of such passion and manipulation within such a short period of time. They don’t sound like kids that age, but rather maybe 15 or more? I couldn’t help but check repetitively what age are 6th graders in the US, because I couldn’t really place the characters’ thoughts and feelings and actions with their supposed age (especially as I have a 9 almost 10-year-old at home). Osei’s reactions to Iago (sorry, Ian) lies and manipulations are a bit implausible because he’s the son of a diplomat and has had many experiences of changing schools and meetings new (and probably equally prejudiced) classmates.

I was in the middle, because my knowledge of Othello is shaky at best. I appreciated the force of the tragedy and the race aspect that Tracy Chevalier chose to highlight. Osei is the new boy in school, but he’s also the only black boy, and the way teachers and kids react is so cruel and racist, that it is the real trigger of the tragedy, rather than jealousy.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

One thought on “The One with Shakespeare in 6th Grade

  1. I have only read one of these Hogarth retelling: ‘Vinegar Girl’ by Anne Tyler. It was a great Sunday afternoon romp but definitely not great literature. As someone who has been breathing in Shakespeare on a daily basis since I was twelve, I have a basic problem with the whole concept of retelling in this way. Why not just go and see the play? If you can’t get to a theatre there are plenty of DVD versions available. I feel the same way about adaptations the other way round as well. This winter the RSC are giving us staged versions of both ‘A Christmas Carol’ and Robert Harris’s ‘Imperium Trilogy’. Why wouldn’t I just read the book? And what about all those young playwrights out there trying desperately to get their own original work staged? Sorry for the rant. It’s a bit of a soapbox issue for me.

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