The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation
Volume One: The Pox Party
Author: M.T. Anderson
Publisher: Candlewick Press
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is the story of Octavian, who lives in a house in Boston with the men that make up the College of Lucidity , the Princess of Oyo who is his mother and various servants. Octavian is given a classical education, he and his mother are dressed in elegant and expensive silks and addressed as royalty. It is only after his mother refuses the unwanted advances of one of the College’s investors that Octavian realizes that he is nothing more than a slave in the household. His mother was an African princess that was sold while still pregnant with Octavian to the men of the college who have been conducting research and experiments using them to ascertain if the African race is "a separate and distinct species.”. I know! It’s unbelievable.
The book is written in 18th century literary style with Octavian telling his story. It is an ambitious story to tell. There’s a lot going on here that would normally be off putting, but M.T. Anderson is a grand storyteller and I found myself transfixed by it all.
As Octavian learns the horrors of slavery, that he is not a pampered prince and free as he had always thought, he becomes a man. He makes friends with another slave who takes him under his wing and learns other, more useful things. All the while, the story of Octavian and his astonishing life (and it is quite astonishing) there are under threads of unrest, the beginnings of war and interesting bits and pieces.
Octavian escapes from his prison and after his owners host a pox party, inoculating their guests against smallpox and his mother dies horribly disfigured. He ends up playing the fiddle and joining the patriots army before he is captured and returned to his owners. Octavian is then forced to wear an iron mask before he is set free by one of the men in the household who had been in love with his mother.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is an astounding book of immense ambition and scope. It addresses so many important issues like slavery, war, free will, bigotry and racism. It’s a powerful and important novel and one to be read and re-read. The author has promised a second volume and I can’t wait to read it.