The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation
Volume 1: The Pox Party
M. T. Anderson
Candlewick, December 2010
About the Book
Young Octavian is being raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers—but it is only after he opens a forbidden door that he learns the hideous nature of their experiments, and his own chilling role them. Set in Revolutionary Boston, M. T. Anderson’s mesmerizing novel takes place at a time when Patriots battled to win liberty, while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim. The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel re-imagines past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.
Let’s see . . . what can I say about Octavian Nothing. It’s an award-winning book—winner of the National Book Award, winner of a Printz Honor. It’s historical fiction set in the Colonies right before the American Revolution. It’s more literary than your typical teen book. It’s heavy in semicolons and rich in detail.
So what is so astonishing about the life of Octavian Nothing? Many things. For starters, he’s a slave who doesn’t quite realize he’s a slave. He has little inkling just what he is . . . or who he is. He’s a human experiment. He’s being studied to determine if Africans are inferior or equal to Europeans. Everything about him is being observed and measured. He’s been given the finest clothes, housed in a luxurious way (at least comparatively speaking), taught to play musical instruments, taught in a classical way. He’s learned in many diverse subjects including English, French, Greek, and Latin. He is a child who had a very strange, very odd, very out-there upbringing by the members of the College of Lucidity, strange men who are fascinated by science, math, philosophy, art, music, and so on.
There are several events that change everything for Octavian and turn his whole world, his whole life, his very being upside down and inside out. Through the course of the book, Octavian goes from being a privileged boy who is clueless about the oppression of slavery to a full-grown man who has experienced the oppressive wrath and cruelty of his masters—a man who now longs for freedom. Even that isn’t quite a fair assessment of what this book is about and of what it has to offer readers.
I can’t promise you that you’ll love it or even like it. You may, of course, respond that way. But this is a book that requires you to be engaged, to connect emotionally and intellectually with the text. It’s a book that requires you to wear your thinking cap.
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