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.
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.