Book Review: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson


The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume I: The Pox Party (2006) by M.T. Anderson begins like a science fiction story, reminiscent of The Baroque Cycle. Young Octavian lives with his mother Cassiopeia and a crowd of Natural Philosophers who go by numbers instead of names. Octavian and his mother are royalty, and although they are far from home, they live in luxury with fine foods and clothing, a classical education, and sophisticated society.

HONKING HUGE SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.

In time it is revealed that Octavian and his mother are slaves living in Boston in the 1760′s-70′s and while treated well materially, Octavian is also something of a lab rat, under constant observation by the scientists of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. This goes right down to Octavian having his excrement weighed after every bowel movement to study the efficiency of his digestive system. Over the course of the novel Octavian grows more aware of the uniqueness and injustice of his situation. Octavian’s coming-of-age is coupled with the College falling on hard times and the start of the Revolution. The central paradox of the novel is that the American’s who are fighting for freedom are doings so while defending their right to withhold freedom from others.

The title refers to an event in the central chapters where in Spring of 1775 the College scientists gather a party of 40 people, both blacks and whites, on a remote farm and inoculate them against smallpox. It is literally a party with dancing and entertainment until the guests begin to fall ill from the inoculation. As everything with the College of Lucidity it is also a scientific experiment to compare the effects of the pox on peoples of European and African descent, and becomes the subject of a scholarly paper. Finally, it is also an attempt by the slave masters to keep their servants indisposed and away from the cities as they fear the British will incite the slaves to fight against the colonists.

The majority of the book is written in first person as Octavian’s memoirs mixed with letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings that offer other character’s perspectives. It’s classified as a Young Adult book, although I think the 18th-century style language would prove challenging for a teenage reader. I know I would have found this book difficult as a teen as I didn’t learn much of the history until I went to college and become acquainted with the language until I worked at Colonial Williamsburg. But perhaps I underestimate today’s young adults who can enjoy reading a gripping story and perhaps reread it later in life for other perspectives.

I enjoyed this book immensely and it is a front runner for my list of favorite books for 2008. I look forward to reading the second volume The Kingdom on the Waves set for release on October 14, 2008.

Favorite Passages

Music hath its land of origin; and yet it is also its own country, its own sovereign power, and all may take refuge there, and all once settled, may claim it as their own, and all may meet there in amity; and these instruments, as surely as instruments of torture, belong to all of us. — p. 156

‘Tis time to shake off the yoke of oppression. ‘Tis not enough for royal tyrants to reduce us to slavery — they raise up our slaves to lord it over us.

We shall break all their backs. We shall show them chaos and rebellion. There shall be retribution. [Clepp Asquith, Esq]. — p. 262

Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2006.

About these ads

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jake Wilkins on 17 August 2008 at 10:16 pm

    Hey, the language was no problem for me and I am familiar with the time period. The problem is, I thought the book was crap. It was required summer reading and I just found that it was painful to read. I thought the author tried to hard to poetic in some of the passages and they just ended up sounding retarded. That’s my bit.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Andi on 12 March 2009 at 6:28 pm

    I thought it was an insightful book, and I had no trouble understanding it with the language (16) I agree with Jake Wilkins here though, it was a bit dull in some places and went on and on. Amazing book, but I would not recommend it if you get bored easily.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Linksword523 on 6 August 2009 at 1:48 pm

    book stunk period……

    Reply

  4. Apparently, six periods.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Anonymous on 30 October 2012 at 11:23 pm

    i dont know what these guys are thinking i liked the book a lot. Maybe thats just cause i only read to about pg.210 but till that point i liked it a lot.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 975 other followers

%d bloggers like this: