The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party Paperback – Jan 22 2008
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From School Library Journal
Starred Review. Grade 9 Up–In this fascinating and eye-opening Revolution-era novel, Octavian, a black youth raised in a Boston household of radical philosophers, is given an excellent classical education. He and his mother, an African princess, are kept isolated on the estate, and only as he grows older does he realize that while he is well dressed and well fed, he is indeed a captive being used by his guardians as part of an experiment to determine the intellectual acuity of Africans. As the fortunes of the Novanglian College of Lucidity change, so do the nature and conduct of their experiments. The boy's guardians host a pox party where everyone is inoculated with the disease in hopes that they will then be immune to its effects, but, instead, Octavian's mother dies. He runs away and ends up playing the fiddle and joining in the Patriots' cause. He's eventually captured and brought back to his household where he's bound and forced to wear an iron mask until one of his more sympathetic instructors engineers his escape. Readers will have to wait for the second volume to find out the protagonist's fate. The novel is written in 18th-century language from Octavian's point of view and in letters written by a soldier who befriends him. Despite the challenging style, this powerful novel will resonate with contemporary readers. The issues of slavery and human rights, racism, free will, the causes of war, and one person's struggle to define himself are just as relevant today. Anderson's use of factual information to convey the time and place is powerfully done.–Sharon Rawlins, NJ Library for the Blind and Handicapped, Trenton
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* M. T. Anderson's books for young people reflect a remarkably broad mastery of genres, even as they defy neat classification. Any labeling requires lots of hyphens: space-travel satire (Feed, 2002), retro-comic fantasy-adventure (Whales on Stilts, 2005). This genre-labeling game seems particularly pointless with Anderson's latest novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (2006), an episodic, highly ambitious story, deeply rooted in eighteenth-century literary traditions, which examines, among many other things, pre-Revolutionary slavery in New England.
The plot focuses on Octavian, a young black boy who recounts his youth in a Boston household of scientists and philosophers (The Novanglian College of Lucidity). The Collegians believe so thoroughly in the Age of Reason's principles that they address one another as numbers. Octavian soon learns that he and his mother are objects of one of the Collegians' experiments to learn whether Africans are "a separate and distinct species." Octavian receives an education "equal to any of the princes in Europe," until financial strains shatter Octavian's sheltered life of intellectual pursuits and the illusion that he is a free member of a utopian society. As political unrest in the colonies grows, Octavian experiences the increasing horrors of what it means to be a slave.
The story's scope is immense, in both its technical challenges and underlying intellectual and moral questions--perhaps too immense to be contained in a traditional narrative (and, indeed, Anderson has already promised a second volume to continue the story). As in Meg Rosoff's Printz Award Book How I Live Now (2004), in which a large black circle replaces text to represent the indescribable, Anderson's novel substitutes visuals for words. Several pages show furious black quill-pen cross-hatchings, through which only a few words are visible, perhaps indicating that even with his scholarly vocabulary, Octavian can't find words to describe the vast evil that he has witnessed. Likewise, Anderson employs multiple viewpoints and formats--letters, newspaper clippings, scientific papers--pick up the story that Octavian is periodically unable to tell.
Once acclimated to the novel's style, readers will marvel at Anderson's ability to maintain this high-wire act of elegant, archaic language and shifting voices, and they will appreciate the satiric scenes that gleefully lampoon the Collegians' more buffoonish experiments. Anderson's impressive historical research fixes the imagined College firmly within the facts of our country's own troubled history. The fluctuations between satire and somber realism, gothic fantasy and factual history will jar and disturb readers, creating a mood that echoes Octavian's unsettled time as well as our own.
Anderson's book is both chaotic and highly accomplished, and, like Aidan Chambers' recent This Is All (2006), it demands rereading. Teens need not understand all the historical and literary allusions to connect with Octavian's torment or to debate the novel's questions, present in our country's founding documents, which move into today's urgent arguments about intellectual life; individual action; the influence of power and money, racism and privilege; and what patriotism, freedom, and citizenship mean. Gillian Engberg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
M.T. Anderson immediately immerses his reader in the flowery, pretentious language spoken in the Revolutionary War period, a language that requires thought and concentration for today's reader. Once the reader is acclimated to the writing style, they are already hooked by Octavian's story. Octavian, an African prince, was sold while yet unborn, to one Mr. Gitney, referred to as 03-01, of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. He was dressed in fine silks and fed the finest of fares. His mother was treated as the African princess she was, entertaining gentlemen, playing her harpsichord.
It was not until Octavian turned eight that he realized his life was not normal, that he was indeed one of the College's experiments. No other human being had their intake, as well as their body's waste, measured and recorded. Every word spoken, every situation, was a challenge to excel, an experiment to determine if the African race was capable of advanced thought and skill. Not all children, especially black children, were given the opportunity for a classical education. Octavian was already an accomplished violinist. He read all of the great literature, in several languages, including Greek and Latin. He understood figures, physics, and sciences of the earth. No discipline was left untouched in the quest to determine the potential of a slave to learn.Read more ›
It gave me such an understanding on the roots of the american culure, of the battles beween american freedom and british culture, of the principles and rigidity of the religious principles..etc. I am a French canadian from Montreal and since we will have the 200th anniversary of the battle in QUebec where the French lost against those english armies. I can really better understand how our culture came to be so far apart and why we have so much problem with our english here, which were the more conservative americans, those who did not want to be free.
But aside from political issues this is a fascinating book, very well written. The philosophical comparison with the roman battles is something. One can measure the giant step which was made since then to put Obama president.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
So Octavian says of those to whom he was an experiment, to those who claimed him as chattel, to those who weighed his excrement daily and compared it to his intake.
It is perhaps this book's most frightening truth that he is correct.
Octavian and his mother were sold into slavery in the 1760s, in Boston, to The Novanglian College of Lucidity. These men were rationalists, and sought to discover - once all of the niceties are removed - whether the Negro was inferior to the European. Octavian was taught "the arts and knowledge of the physical world...the strictest instruction in ethics...kindness, filial duty, piety, obedience, and humility," Latin, Greek, the violin, and while learning these things, he was dressed in silk and lavished with luxuries.
Yet we see the detached scientist immediately in his caretakers, as Octavian describes an experiment whereby they drowned a dog to time its drowning, and another where they dropped alley-cats from high places to "judge the height from which cats no longer shatter," and yet another where they tried to teach a girl "deprived of reason and speech" the usage of verbs, and when the girl could not master verbs, they beat her "to the point of gagging and swooning."
And yet they never meant unkindness.
While this is a book of fiction, it is useful to remember (as the author calls us to at the end) that while the College of Lucidity is a fictional entity, the kind of experiments they conducted indeed took place, and the question of inferiority was one that was much discussed.
Octavian, with his mother, Mr. Gitney, and Dr. Trefusis, excelled. He became literate beyond their hopes, and could play the violin as a virtuoso. Without a doubt, his education was better than the vast majority of children his age, white or black. But then the College's benefactor dies, and a new benefactor arrives, represented by Mr. Sharpe, who presupposes the inferiority of the Negro and demands that Octavian's studies be changed...changed to ensure his failure.
As with all stories, once change is introduced, the stakes increase.
Anderson tells this story with a remarkably sure hand, using spot-on eighteenth century diction and grammar as much as he could without losing his intended audience, young adults. The majority of the story is told through the backward-looking eyes of Octavian himself, but Anderson also employs newspaper clippings and a variety of letters (most entertaining were the set from the soldier, Evidence Goring, to his sister and mother) to further authenticate the tale and ground it.
All of the characters are three-dimensional. The plot is handled with meticulous care, moving cautiously in the beginning, like an orchestral score, building with intensity to the moment of change, the crescendo which, not surprisingly, also occurs side-by-side with a telling of a part of the War.
Setting his story against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War proved brilliant, for the irony of slave-owners sending slaves not promised freedom to fight in their stead for the cause of liberty, can be lost on no one.
This is without question one of the most moving books I have read in some time. The character of Octavian is one of the most unique and fully realized I have ever encountered in young adult fiction.
That this won the National Book Award should be no surprise.
If you're willing to put in the effort, the payoff is huge. The characters are believable. The story is horrific, heartbreaking, and somehow hopeful at the same time. The language is stunningly gorgeous in parts. The subject matter is fascinating, and it made me think about our country's history from a different perspective. Also, if you don't read too many reviews that all but spoil the plot for you (Anderson slowly reveals the reality of the situation to the reader as Octavian begins to realize what's going on), the tension and mystery of it propels you along. The cliffhanger ending was perfect, and I cannot wait for the second book in the series to be published.
Disclaimer: I'm thanked in the acknowledgments, but this graciousness on Anderson's part in no way affects my opinion of the book.
Unfortunately the ending leaves you hanging and doesn't seem complete. I'm not patient enough to wait another year for Volume 2.
Bottom line is if you like dark, tragically sad, well written books I would recommend this one.
I have no idea why this is reviewed and marketed as a young readers' book, except that (a) Anderson's prior books were YA, (b) the narrator is a boy, and (c) there is no explicit sex. Anyone who expects this to be delightful and engaging light reading for teenagers will be disappointed. This book is deep, clever, moving, darkly funny and fascinating. The Booklist comment "it demands rereading" is right - it's even better the second time through, because you can see how much foreshadowing there was, and how beautifully everything ties together.
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