Hogarth Shakespeare
"O felt her presence behind him like a fire at his back.”
 
Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote—“O” for short—knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day, so he is lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one boy, used to holding sway in the world of the school­yard, can’t stand to witness the budding relationship. When Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl, the school and its key players—teachers and pupils alike—will never be the same again.
 
The tragedy of Othello is vividly transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington school, 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. The world of preadolescents is as passionate and intense, if not more so, as that of adults. Drawing us into the lives and emotions of four eleven-year-olds—Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi—Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by love and jealousy, bullying and betrayal, is as moving as it is enthralling. It is an unfor­gettable novel.

Excerpt

Dee noticed him before anyone else. She was glad of that, held on to it. It made her feel special to have him to herself for a few seconds, before the world around them skipped a beat and did not recover for the restof the day.

The playground was busy before school. Enough children had arrived early that games of jacks and kickball and hopscotch had begun, to be abandoned when the bell rang. Dee herself had not been early—her mother had sent her upstairs to change her top for something looser, saying Dee had spilled egg on it, though Dee herself couldn’t see any yolk. She’d had to run part of the way to school, braids thumping against her back, until the stream of students heading the same direction reassured her she was not late. She had gotten to the playground with a minute to spare before the first bell rang.

There hadn’t been enough time to join her best friend, Mimi, jumping Double Dutch with the other girls, so instead Dee had headed to the playground entrance into the building, where Mr. Brabant was standing with other teachers, waiting for the class lines to form. Her teacher had a short, angled haircut that squared his head, and stood very straight. Someone told Dee he had fought in Vietnam. Dee was not the top student in class—that prize went to prim Patty—but she liked to please Mr. Brabant when she could, enough to make him notice her, though she knew she was sometimes called a teacher’s pet.

She took her place at the front of the line now, and looked around, her eyes on the Double-Dutch girls still jumping rope. Then she spotted him, a motionless presence by the merry‑go‑round. Four boys were spinning on it—Ian and Rod and two boys from fourth grade. They were going so fast that Dee was sure one of the teachers would stop them. Once a boy had been flung off and broken an arm. The two fourth graders looked scared, but could not control the merry‑‑go‑‑round, as Ian was expertly kicking the ground to keep up the speed.

The boy standing near the frenetic motion was not dressed like the other boys, casual in their jeans and T‑‑shirts and sneakers. Instead he wore gray flared pants, a white short-sleeve shirt, and black shoes, like a uniform a private school student would wear. But it was his skin that stood out, its color reminding Dee of bears she’d seen at the zoo a few months before, on a school field trip. Though they were called black bears, their fur was actually deep brown, with a reddish tint at the tips. They had mostly slept, or sniffed at the pile of grubs the keeper had dumped in the pen for them. Only when Rod threw a stick at the animals to impress Dee did one of the bears react, baring its yellow teeth and growling so that the children shrieked and laughed. Dee had not joined in, though; she had frowned at Rod and turned away.

The new boy was not watching the merry‑go‑round, but studying the L‑shaped building. It was a typical suburban elementary school, built eight years before, and looked like two red-brick shoeboxes unimaginatively shoved together. When Dee had started kindergarten it still had a new building smell to it. Now, though, it was like a dress she had worn many times, with its tears and stains and marks where the hem had been let down. She knew every classroom, every staircase, every handrail, every bathroom cubicle. She knew every foot of the playground too, as well as the younger students’ playground on the other side of the building. Dee had fallen off the swings, torn her tights on the slide, gotten stuck at the top of the jungle gym when she became too scared to climb down. Once she had declared one half of the playground Girl Town, and she and Mimi and Blanca and Jennifer had chased away any boy who dared to cross the line. She had hidden with others around the corner near the gym entrance, where teachers on duty couldn’t see them and they could try on lipstick and read comics and play spin the bottle. She had lived her life on the playground, laughed and cried and had crushes and formed friendships and made few enemies. It was her world, so familiar she took it for granted. In a month she would be leaving it for junior high.

Now someone new and different had entered the territory, and this made Dee look at the space anew and suddenly find it shabby, and herself an alien in it.Like him.

He was moving now. Not like a bear, with its bulky, lumbering gait. More like a wolf, or—Dee tried to think of dark animals—a panther, scaled up from house cats. Whatever he was thinking—probably about being the new boy in a playground full of strangers the opposite color from him—he padded toward the school doors where the teachers waited with the unconscious assuredness of someone who knows how his body works. Dee felt her chest tighten. She drew in a breath.
Publisher: Knopf Canada