The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
M. T. ANDERSON
In Thirsty, young adult novelist M. T. Anderson imagines a Massachusetts town that is almost completely normal, except for the vampires. In Feed, he turns his attention to a future that any modern reader would recognize. Shopping is all the rage. Televisions and computers are popular; they are so popular, in fact, that everyone is equipped with a direct brain-connection to them at birth. What unites both books is Anderson's ability to skew his reader's perceptions of the world just enough for them to get a better look at it. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party (2006) is no different. With events unfolding before and during the American Revolution, the time and setting could not be more different from his previous novels. Nevertheless, Anderson has once again rendered a fictional world that is both familiar and alien.
In pre-Revolutionary Boston, the reader is introduced to the Octavian of the title. Along with his mother, he resides with a group of rationalist philosophers and scientists at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. He is provided a rigorous classical education amidst mysteriously luxurious circumstances. Octavian discovers the essential truth of his existence when he opens the door to a forbidden room. Not only is he a slave, but also the subject of a scientific experiment to determine the intellectual capacities of the African race. When the fortunes of the College change, the motivation behind the
research degrades from misguided scientific enquiry to rank propaganda.
As the novel yields its secrets and its horrors, the reader is kept off guard with shifting points of view and innovative narrative techniques. The end result is an alternative narrative of the American Revolution that strips away mythology in favor of a clear-eyed view of the moral questions present at the founding of the nation.
Young adult novelist Matthew Tobin (M. T.) Anderson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1968. The son of Will, an engineer, and Julianna, an Episcopal priest, he grew up in an undeveloped neighborhood in the town of Stow, outside of Boston, and attended St. Mark's High School in Southborough. In 1987 he was accepted at Harvard. Not looking forward to starting at the university, he deferred for a year to go overseas and attend Winchester College, a boarding school in England. Challenged for the first time by his studies and enjoying life in England, Anderson applied to Cambridge University before returning home. He attended Harvard for one semester, but did not hesitate to drop out when he learned of his acceptance at Cambridge. Anderson earned his undergraduate degree in English literature and graduated from Cambridge in 1991. He returned to the United States the following year and soon took a position as an editorial assistant at Candlewick Press, a children's publisher, in 1992.
In 1996 Anderson left his job in the publishing industry to begin his master's degree in creative writing at Syracuse University. That same year he also sold his first novel to his old employer, Candlewick Press, and spent the next twelve months making revisions on the book. Thirsty, a vampire story set in a high school, was published in 1997, to favorable reviews. Two years later he followed up Thirsty with Burger Wuss, an anti-conformist manifesto of fast food drudgery and teenage angst. Though he was writing steadily, Anderson's career as a writer had not yet taken off. That changed in 2001 with the publication of Handel, Who Knew What He Liked, a picture-book biography of the legendary baroque composer that went on to become a 2002 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book. For his next novel, Anderson veered off in a surprising new direction. Achillingly ironic vision of a future society controlled by brain-computers, Feed was a 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner, a 2003 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book, and a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award. Anderson had become a major voice in the world of young adult fiction.
Since then, Anderson has published six more novels ranging the spectrum of children's, middle grade, and young adult fiction, including: Strange Mr. Satie (2004), a picture book biography of French composer Erik Satie; The Game of Sunken Places (2004); The Serpent Came to Gloucester (2005); Me, All Alone, at the End of the World (2005); Whales on Stilts (2005), the first title in the illustrated “M. T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales” series for middle-grade readers; and its sequel, The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen (2007). In 2006, between the release of the two titles in his “Thrilling Tales” series, Anderson saw the publication of his acclaimed young adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party, a 2007 Michael L. Printz Honor Book and the winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Young People. He has served on the faculty at Vermont College's MFA Program in Writing for Children but began writing full time in 2005. As of 2007, Anderson was living in Cambridge, Massachussetts.
The Transit of Venus: Drawn Primarily from the Manuscript Testimony of the Boy Octavian
The literary conceit of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is that of a compilation of various documents collected by “Mr. M. T. Anderson” of Boston. The novel unfolds in the form of Octavian's own manuscript testimony, letters, newspaper announcements, scientific papers, and other documents. The first part of Octavian's testimony is taken up with recollections of his earliest memories and the childhood events that left a particular impression on him. Along with his mother Cassiopeia, an exiled princess from the Oyo kingdom in western Africa, he resides with a group of rationalist philosophers and scientists at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Octavian and his mother are the only members of the household called by their names, while everyone else is addressed according to a complicated numerical naming system devised by Octavian's chief guardian, Mr. Gitney. Octavian does not find this strange, nor does he think it odd that every ounce of food he eats, and eliminates, is carefully weighed and noted in a bound volume that exists for just that purpose.
The scholars give Octavian a rigorous education in the classics—he is fluent in Greek and Latin and a prodigy on the violin. However, the scholars of the Novanglian College of Lucidity value the pursuit of knowledge as the defining achievement of mankind. For the sake of scientific observation, they perform experiments that Octavian remembers chiefly for the nature of their cruelty. The puppy given to Octavian by Mr. Gitney is killed so that he may observe the boy's reaction. The mute girl acquired by the College is beaten when she fails to learn how to conjugate verbs. Octavian conveys these memories in the distant, rational, scientific manner taught to him by his guardians.
The story Octavian has been told concerning his mother's passage to America is fraught with adventure. He believes that Mr. Gitney, reading of her arrival in the newspaper, rushed down to the docks to offer the beautiful, exotic princess refuge at the College. He learns the truth from Mr. Gitney's valet, Bono, when he is eight years old. Bono explains to him that his mother came to America on a slave ship and was purchased by the College at a slave auction while still pregnant with Octavian. After this revelation, Octavian's testimony breaks off for the first time with the insertion of an announcement in The Boston Gazette describing the slave auction where his mother was sold.
Soon after his encounter with Bono, the College throws a dinner party for a visiting painter. Determined to find out the truth, Octavian ventures to the only experimental chamber in the house that he has been forbidden from entering. Ignoring the sketch of his own face in the shape of a skull and crossbones, he opens the door and steps inside. On the wall in front of him is an engraving of his mother entitled “Plate XVII. Pubescent Female of the Oyo Country in Africa.” The walls are stacked with row upon row of bound volumes imprinted with the names of Octavian and his mother. When he is discovered by Mr. Gitney, Octavian learns the essential truth of his existence—he is the subject of an experiment to determine the intellectual capacities of the African race.
The fortune of the College changes when its chief financial backer, Lord Cheldthorpe, dies. Hoping to secure the patronage of his replacement, Mr. Gitney invites the new Lord Cheldthorpe for an extended visit to America. Upon his arrival, Lord Cheldthorpe takes up an immediate flirtation with Octavian's mother, a prospect that Mr. Gitney views with cautious optimism. However, as Lord Cheldthorpe's visit comes to a close, his flirtation with Cassiopeia ends disastrously when she refuses to return to London as his mistress and slave. After a physical altercation, Cassiopeia and Octavian are horse-whipped and locked into the ice-house overnight. From this day forward, the Novanglian College of Lucidity experiences a permanent reversal of fortune.
The Pox Party: Taken from the Manuscript Testimony of Octavian Gitney
Mr. Sharpe is brought in to save the College from financial ruin. He decrees that the artists, philosophers, scientists, and musicians will all put their talents to work in the service of utility. As for Octavian, Mr. Sharpe declares that the experiment has been weighed too heavily in his favor. To make up for this perceived flaw, Mr. Sharpe replaces Octavian's beloved teacher Dr. Trefusis. Octavian is banned from the study of literature and history, barred from the library, and limited to the rote recitation of Greek and Latin fragments. Taking on the more traditional role of a slave in the household, Octavian begins training as a valet under the guidance of Bono. From the beginning, Octavian depicts Bono's greater experience and knowledge of the world with admiration and is secretly pleased at the change of circumstances that brings them onto a more equal footing.
In this new restrictive atmosphere, Octavian passes from childhood to adolescence. He struggles under the tutelage of Mr. Sharpe and his whip. When Octavian demands to know why his education is being administered so poorly, Mr. Gitney reveals to him that a consortium of investors—mostly plantation owners—have taken a financial interest in the outcome of the experiment. They want him to fail. This news is followed by shocking information from the outside world. England has decreed human bondage illegal and granted all slaves in the country their freedom. When Cassiopeia hears of this, she withdraws even further from the daily life of the house, lamenting to Octavian that her decision not to take him to England with Lord Cheldthorpe has condemned him to a lifetime of slavery. Outside the walls of the garden, talk of insurrection fills the countryside. Skirmishes between Loyalists and Colonists intensify. Families begin pouring out of Boston. The Novanglian College of Lucidity retreats to a house in Canaan, Massachusetts, owned by one of Mr. Gitney's brothers. Soon after their arrival in Canaan, Octavian learns that Bono has been given away as a Christmas gift to one of the College Trustees.
Before Bono's departure to Virginia, he takes Octavian to the garden and forces him to memorize the location of a certain stone. The meaning of this gesture is lost on Octavian. After Bono is put on a ship to Virginia, Mr. Gitney sends out invitations for the Pox Party. With a growing sense of foreboding, Octavian describes how relatives, including their children and slaves, are invited to stay for a period of several weeks. During that time, they will be exposed to a mild strain of the virus with the purpose of becoming immune to a more virulent strain. With an air of frivolity and excitement, the party begins. The guests form a line and, one by one, lay bare an exposed arm for Mr. Gitney's swift application of the smallpox virus.
As a few days pass in idle leisure, Octavian begins to notice the mysterious presence of men with guns posted all over the grounds. To Octavian's concerned surprise, they are not keeping watch on events outside the gates. Rather, they are watching the slaves inside the gates. When Octavian is summoned to a meeting with Mr. Gitney, he learns the truth. The slave-holding families in attendance are terrified of rumors of a slave revolt. They are exposing their own slaves to smallpox to render them too tired and ill to raise up arms should the revolt materialize. This plan results in three deaths, including Cassiopeia's. Octavian depicts the details of his mother's illness and death with the crystallized memory of deep pain.
Outside, tensions continue to rise. Preparations for war are being made up and down the coast; refugees are streaming out of Boston; and the Royal Marines are confiscating gunpowder wherever they can.
In a visual representation of his emotional suffering, the first half of Octavian's testimony ends not with words but violent splashes of ink blotting them out. The narrative picks up with a scientific report on Cassiopeia's death and an autopsy that briefly mentions Octavian's escape. This is followed by a letter written by Dr. Trefusis to the American Philosophical Society as an addendum to the report. In the letter, Dr. Trefusis makes it known that Mr. Gitney spent the day before Cassiopeia's autopsy next to her corpse, proffering to it repeated statements of his love.
Liberty and Property: Drawn from Letters, principally those of Private Evidence Goring, Reed's Regiment
The main thrust of the narrative picks up in the form of letters to home written by a young Patriot soldier from New Hampshire named Private Evidence Goring. Stopping at a rundown tavern, Goring and his fellow soldiers are moved by the melancholy country tunes Octavian plays for them on a rough musical instrument of his own making. Seeing that Octavian is ill-treated by the innkeeper, the company commander, Captain Draper, asks Octavian if he would like to join in the fight for liberty and play the fife for the Kedron Company. Octavian consents. When he is asked his name, he says it is Prince.
Placed amongst the letters of Private Goring are others written by Mr. Sharpe to Mr. Clepp Asquith, the College Trustee who was given Bono as a gift. Mr. Sharpe apologizes for letting Octavian escape but assures Mr. Asquith that he will be found soon. He lays out his plan to search for Octavian in the militia encampments that have sprung up outside of Boston. Responding to the news with extreme displeasure, Mr. Asquith also relays the news that his new valet, Bono, has also run away. The coincidence of the close timing has both men worried that Octavian and Bono are orchestrating a slave revolt together.
After writing several letters home with nothing to report but drill practice and descriptions of Octavian's grave solemnity, Private Goring sends a long letter to his sister outlining the details of their first skirmish with the Royal Marines—an excursion to Noddle's Island to steal livestock. Over the course of the military adventure, which takes place over many hours, Octavian is almost killed when he makes a suicidal attempt to rescue another soldier who has been shot in the leg. Private Goring saves Octavian's life by throwing him to the ground just before muskets are fired. Goring writes with pride of the profound transformation this event seems to spark in Octavian, noting with relief that he has replaced his sorrow with rage.
Almost mute and bereft with grief when he first joins up, Octavian is, after this event, filled with purpose, and fights shoulder to shoulder with the Patriots for the cause of liberty.
The Kedron Company receives orders to join the growing militia encampment outside Boston. Once there, Octavian is requisitioned for a work detail comprised of slaves, free blacks, and Irishmen. Octavian's work detail is one of many commissioned to fortify Bunker Hill in a single night. Private Goring describes in a letter how, over the course of many hours, the heavy fortifications are built without making a sound to alert the Redcoats. He is particularly moved by the sight of Octavian standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow soldiers, driven with a newfound sense of resolve—the fight for liberty. The battle rages all the next day and, when it is over, the survivors return to the encampment. The next evening, it is Octavian's violin that eases the burden of the memory of the battle. As he plays, the crowd grows larger. The soldiers shout requests for Octavian to play their favorite songs from home, and he obliges. Private Goring does not know it, but this is the event that will bring about Octavian's return to bondage.
Private Goring's next letter home unknowingly lays out the trap set by Mr. Sharpe to recapture Octavian. Mr. Sharpe easily tricks Goring into convincing Octavian to accept a dangerous commission to sneak into Boston and join up with the Parliamentary Band as a spy. Octavian is suspicious of the request at first, but soon begins to feel that he will be risking his life for the cause of liberty. He consents to walk out of the camp with the soldiers sent there by Mr. Sharpe.
Mr. Sharpe writes a victorious letter to Mr. Asquith to report that Octavian is back at the Novanglian College of Lucidity.
The Great Chain of Being: Drawn from the Manuscript Testimony of Octavian Gitney
Octavian is bound hand and foot. An iron mask is placed on his face, with a metal bit in his mouth to prevent him from talking. He is locked away, isolated and alone. In this state, his thoughts roam. Octavian depicts these memories as disjointed. A meditation on the nature of solidity will shift into a sudden image from his childhood he has not recollected for years. Still, he does not have the ability to write about his mother. When he tries, the only thing left is blots of ink.
As Octavian becomes more aware of his surroundings, he reflects on his brief taste of freedom. Eventually his thoughts turn away from his own particular condition to a greater consciousness of the suffering and degradation endured by his fellow slaves, particularly one whom he saw after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Hosiah Lister was sent to fight in place of his master with only a vague promise of freedom should he survive. Octavian remembers what the doctor writes down in an account book upon his death:“Hosiah Lister, now dead, rec'd his freedom.”
Moving from sorrow to anger, Octavian ruminates on the hypocrisy that facilitated his return to the College. With furious certainty, he realizes that he was allowed to be captured because the College Trustees are great financial investors of the Patriot Army. He was fighting for freedom alongside those who were fighting for their right to keep slaves in chains.
After many days in isolation, Octavian finally receives a summons. He is taken down to the experimental chamber and is forced into a chair in front of Mr. Gitney, Mr. Sharpe, and Dr. Trefusis. While Octavian is subjected to a lecture from Mr. Sharpe on the subject of liberty and property, Dr. Trefusis serves tea that he has laced with strong opiates to Mr. Gitney and Mr. Sharpe. The tea first knocks out Mr. Gitney, then, more slowly, Mr. Sharpe. A nervous Dr. Trefusis escorts Octavian from the experimental chamber to the grounds outside. They make a narrow escape to the town of Roxbury to wait for the low tide. When darkness falls, Octavian and Dr. Trefusis, traitors to the nation, set off over the flats to Boston.
See Mr. Gitney
See Mr. Goff
See Dr. Trefusis
13-04 is Octavian's music teacher. He tries—and fails—to get Cassiopeia to help him transcribe the songs she remembers from her childhood.
See Pro Bono
Aina is the cook. Her appearance in Octavian's recollections coincides with his change in status from a young prince to a valet-in-training, when his role in the house comes into closer alignment with those of the other slaves in the household.
Throughout most of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Octavian struggles both to understand and to be close to his mother, Cassiopeia. An exiled princess of the Egba people from the Oyo Empire of Western Africa, she is a woman of great beauty and wit, always the center of attention around whom the scholars and philosophers revolve. Cassiopeia becomes more distant after she is horse-whipped with Octavian for spurning the advances of one of the College's prospective financial backers. This episode marks the beginning of her tragic descent. It is Cassiopeia who will become the main victim of the Pox Party, suffering an agonizing death from smallpox after she is “inoculated” by Mr. Gitney. Her death is the event that triggers Octavian's first escape.
First Lord Cheldthorpe
Under the patronage of the first Lord Cheldthorpe, referred to as 02-01 by Mr. Gitney, the Novanglian College of Lucidity is supported in lavish style. Upon his death, the College loses its financial footing and never recovers.
Second Lord Cheldthorpe
After the first Lord Cheldthorpe dies without an heir, the king passes on the title to the lord's young and energetic nephew. The new Lord Cheldthorpe, 02-06, arrives at the College to survey the prospect of resuming patronage. However, it is Cassiopeia, not the scholars, who attracts his immediate attention. Though Octavian dislikes him at first, he is won over during swimming lessons with the young nobleman. The new Lord Cheldthorpe is ultimately spurned by Octavian's mother during a violent altercation that results in a severe whipping for both Octavian and Cassiopeia. In this way, Lord Cheldthorpe's visit culminates in an act of brutality that brings them both face-to-face with the physical reality of what it means to be a slave—and effectively foreshadows what is to come.
Druggett is a fur trader who brings what he claims is a dragon skull to the College when Octavian is a young boy. As one of Lord Cheldthorpe's lackeys, he is also a member of the party that ventures to the countryside to witness the transit of Venus.
Dr. Matthias Fruhling
During a visit to the College, Dr. Fruhling, a member of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, writes a letter to his wife complaining of the lavish and frivolous way the College spends money—effectively foreshadowing their financial troubles. His letter also contains a glowing description of the young Octavian and his remarkable talent on the violin.
Girl Deprived of Reason
The “Girl Deprived of Reason” is a docile and mute child who is mysteriously acquired by the College. Despite the obvious impossibility of the task, they set about teaching her how to conjugate verbs and beat her when she fails. One motivation for these cruel experiments is to observe Octavian's reaction to them.
Known as 03-01 in the first section of the novel, Mr. Gitney is Octavian's chief guardian at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Mr. Gitney is portrayed as sympathetic but ineffectual—and eventually as untrustworthy also. Time after time he fails Octavian in the most profound ways. He fails to protect him from Lord Cheldthorpe and later fails to protect him again from Mr. Sharpe. He also fails himself, easily succumbing to financial pressures that call for him to betray his own cherished ideals by sacrificing his objectivity. In the end, he even betrays his own heart. It is Mr. Gitney who gives Cassiopeia the smallpox inoculation that kills her, and he can only express his love for her once she is dead.
Octavian narrates the events that comprise the first and last half of the novel, which is presented in the form of “manuscript testimony,” and covers the period of Octavian's life from his earliest memories to the time of his escape to Boston. He is raised by a group of radical philosophers and scholars who do not reveal to him that he is a slave and the subject of an experiment to discover the intellectual capacities of his race—one that will ultimately be used to propagate the myth that Africans belong to an inferior race. After his mother dies from smallpox, Octavian escapes for the first time. Assuming the name Prince, he is taken in by a company of Patriot soldiers and befriended by one of their rank, Private Goring. After a period of time spent fighting alongside the Patriots, Octavian is betrayed by Private Goring, who falls for a trap to recapture Octavian that is set by Mr. Sharpe. This event sets in motion the final sequence of the book, Octavian's dramatic escape to Boston with Dr. Trefusis.
Mr. Goff, known as 07-03 until midway through the novel, is a painter associated with the College who is besotted with Cassiopeia. It is 07-03 who painted the mural depicting “The Golden Age of Man,” Mr. Gitney's ideal of a perfect world devoted to the rational pursuit of knowledge. When this mural is sold off to pay debts, Mr. Goff is asked by Mr. Sharpe to paint another—this one, though, representing Mr. Sharpe's ideal of a perfect world where the arts and sciences exist only to the extent that they are useful in some practical way.
Private Evidence Goring
Private Goring is Octavian's closest friend after he runs away from the College and winds up in the Kedron Company fighting on the side of the Patriots. Goring's enthusiastic letters home to his sister and mother bridge the two halves of Octavian's testimony and also document the events that help him begin to heal his fractured soul. In the end it is also Private Goring who unknowingly betrays Octavian by easily falling for the trap laid out by Mr. Sharpe.
Fruition is Evidence Goring's sister and the recipient of the majority of the letters he writes home. She is also Shem's fiancee.
John is a Patriot soldier in the Kedron Company who serves alongside Evidence Goring and Octavian. During their first skirmish with the Royal Marines, it is John who panics and runs from cover straight into enemy fire. Hoping to get himself killed, Octavian rushes in to save John's life and is in turn saved by Private Goring. In the end, John loses his leg.
Captain Julian McFergus
Captain McFergus is the Master of the slave ship Incontrovertible. In Cassiopeia's version of her passage to America, he is depicted as her protector. However, Octavian has no way of knowing how much of Cassiopeia's story is true. In the announcement for the slave auction that appears in the Boston Gazette, Captain McFergus is necessarily depicted as nothing more than a slave driver.
Nancy is the laundry maid. She appears alongside Aina, the cook, at a time when Octavian's descending status brings him closer to the other slaves in the house.
Pro Bono, or Bono for short, is Mr. Gitney's valet. More importantly, he is Octavian's role model and his connection to a wider understanding of the harsh realities of the world. Throughout the novel, it is Bono who gives Octavian crucial, if painful, information about his existence—including the news that his mother was purchased at a slave auction. At great personal risk, Bono steals books from the library for Octavian to read. Years later, it is Bono who shows Octavian where he has hidden the keys to the gate of the College. Bono and Octavian also unwittingly escape at the same time, a fact that reinforces the link between them and hints at the possibility that they might cross paths again in the future.
Mr. Sharpe is sent to the College by the trustees to attend to its finances when Lord Cheldthorpe declines to resume his uncle's patronage. It is not long before he asserts his authority over all matters great and small—in particular, anything having to do with Octavian. He takes over Octavian's education and replaces history and literature with rote recitations of
Latin and Greek fragments. He prohibits Octavian from using the library and lends him out as a musician for hire at subscription concerts. Mr. Sharpe facilitates Octavian's capture from the militia encampment, and in the end it is also Mr. Sharpe who gives the self-serving speech justifying the practice of slavery for purely financial reasons.
Shem is a Patriot soldier in the Kedron Company. He is also Fruition's fiance.
Dr. Trefusis is a kind, elderly philosopher and Octavian's teacher for the many years before Mr. Sharpe's arrival. Of the scholars, Dr. Trefusis alone consistently looks out for Octavian's best interests. He defends Octavian's intellectual capabilities to Mr. Sharpe and defends his right to a strong education in literature and history when Mr. Sharpe says such study is not suitable for the African race. It is also Dr. Trefusis who makes sure that Octavian studies narratives of slave revolts throughout history. Dr. Trefusis largely disappears from sight as Mr. Sharpe becomes a larger influence in Octavian's life, but his reappearance with opiate-laced tea at the end of the story triggers the novel's dramatic denouement.
John Withers is the customs inspector whom Octavian and Dr. Trefusis come upon after he has been tarred and feathered by an angry mob in Boston. According to the Author's Note at the end of the book, this scene was a composite based on actual reports of the time.
The Search for Identity
One of the most pervasive themes in all of literature is the search for identity, and it plays a major role in Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Indeed, this theme is made explicit in the very title of the novel: Who is Octavian Nothing, and what makes his life astonishing? These questions are explored throughout the course of the novel as Octavian seeks answers to fundamental questions about who and what he is. His “manuscript testimony” is the story of how he came to know himself.
Octavian is defined by specialness and separateness—from himself, his past, and even his own mother. With precious few examples of normal family relationships, he assumes the mannerisms of his scholarly guardians: “I looked upon my being as did those who raised me; I accounted myself an experimental subject to be observed and noted.” As he grows, Octavian is instinctively drawn to the closest thing to a brother or father that he will ever know, Bono. Providing a rare dose of clarity and honesty, his tenuous connection to Bono brings him closer to a truer understanding of himself. This pattern is repeated elsewhere in the novel—especially in Octavian's deep connection to literature and history. In the pages of the books that Bono surreptitiously brings him from the library, Octavian is looking for more than just the pleasure of escape—he is seeking narratives on which he can pattern his own life: “for reading, once begun, quickly becomes home and circle and court and family; and indeed, without narrative, I felt exiled from my own country.” Little does Octavian know, at this point in the novel, that the day he becomes a true exile from his own country is the very day when he will come to know himself.
Slavery and Moral Corruption
Another major theme in the novel has to do with slavery's effect on personal and political ethics. In a thematic parallel to the smallpox that ravages Cassiopeia's beauty and ultimately takes her life, slavery is depicted as a virus that wreaks its own kind of destruction on individuals and the population at large. Slavery is shown to corrupt not just people, but also their most cherished ideals. This is what happens to the philosophers and scholars of the Novanglian College of Lucidity—men who have devoted their lives to the rational pursuit of knowledge. In the earliest passages of the book, they are depicted with a sense of wonderment and awe:“The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands.” Yet the profitable enterprise of slavery is shown to undermine the very foundation upon which Octavian's chief guardian, Mr. Gitney, has built his existence. However misguided his intentions, the experiment that Mr. Gitney makes of Octavian's life is born of honest scientific inquiry. Yet the economic windfall that accompanies the practice of slavery is all the inducement needed to subvert a lifetime of purpose to mere propaganda. Octavian is simply dumbfounded when Mr. Gitney reveals to him that outside investors are hoping for his failure as a means of justifying the continued subjugation of his race: “I nodded without words; I would not stop; I could not while the lie still prospered.” That money generated by the work of slaves is used to pay for the debased science designed to prove the racial inferiority of slaves marks the complete triumph of moral corruption over personal integrity. How does the promise of the American Revolution survive in a world where a human being may also be another man's property? It does not. One of the most poignant elements of the novel is the reader's knowledge that slavery's corrosive effect will tear the new nation apart less than a century after its birth.
The Myth of the American Revolution
Though Anderson's novel is set during the time of the American Revolution, it is not a story of easy patriotism. It does not leave the reader basking in the warm glow of a shared national mythology. To the contrary, Anderson constructs his story in such a way that readers must question their own assumptions about the founding of the nation. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the era in which The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is set, America was struggling to break free from its financial ties with England. In the novel, the tension generated by a country struggling to reconcile opposing views about liberty, slavery, treason, and loyalty is made evident in the conflicts between those who want freedom from taxation and those who just want freedom. More particularly, the conflict is evident in the clash between Mr. Sharpe's view of freedom and Octavian's view of freedom. However unromantic, Mr. Sharpe's opinion that true freedom happens “when the rights of liberty and property are exercised, and when all men are free to operate in their own self-interest” has a ring of familiarity. To the contemporary reader, it sounds as if Mr. Sharpe is talking about the sanctity of a free market. This idea is not the first thing that comes to mind when one reflects on the reasons why America chose to fight for its independence. Our national mythology has had more than two centuries to take hold, and it is best expressed in Octavian's simple belief that freedom means personal liberty, not financial liberty. In The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Anderson turns this myth on its head.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is heavily influenced by the literary tradition of gothic fiction. Though the gothic elements are concentrated mainly in the first quarter of the novel, the spell they cast upon the atmosphere and mood of the story extends to the last page. Some of the signposts of the genre include an eerie setting (castles, crypts, graveyards); transformation and possession (vampires, unsettled spirits); a preoccupation with dark themes (blood, obsession, loss, death); and the occasional other worldly apparition (ghosts, bats, shadowy figures in the moonlight). Hugely popular in the eighteenth century, classics like The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle of Otrantooffered readers a chance to escape from the relentless rationalism of the era into a parallel universe where Enlightenment-era ideas of optimism and progress were subverted or forgotten altogether.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Private Goring's letters are written in an archaic style that some readers may find difficult, but they have an urgency and authenticity that demands attention. Writing as his sister, Fruition, respond to one of Goring's letters in your best imitation of this style. Do some research and include in your letter authentic details of the time and place. What would Fruition see outside her window? How would she spend her day? What kind of news or gossip might she hear about from her neighbors?
- The epigraph to the last section of the novel is from Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary: “In this world we are condemned to be an anvil or a hammer.” Why does Anderson place this epigraph at the end of the book? What does this quote mean, and what are its implications? Write a one-page essay explaining how the quote is relevant to Octavian's struggles.
- Imagine you could travel back in time and engage in a debate with Mr. Sharpe on the issue of slavery. What would you say to him? Shape your arguments in the form of a debate, with another student playing the part of Mr. Sharpe.
- Octavian has been trained from earliest childhood to observe his surroundings with the keen eye of a scientist. Yet even as he writes his clinical descriptions of the smallpox that is ravaging Cassiopeia, the reader senses that Octavian is becoming unmoored from his teachings by the tragedy unfolding around him. Upon her death, he can no longer express himself in words at all. He even crosses out three pages of his testimony in furious scribbles of ink. Using details from the novel and what you know of Octavian's state of mind at the time, fill in those missing passages.
- The scholars at the Novanglian College of Lucidity performed many cruel experiments in the name of science. They kill Octavian's puppy just to observe his reaction and beat a mute girl for not properly conjugating her verbs. What do you make of this? See if you can find a magazine or newspaper article that depicts modern scientists in an unflattering light. Write a five-paragraph essay in which you draw parallels between the portrayal of scientists in the article and the novel.
Anderson's decision to infuse his novel with the gothic makes sense in light of the fact that no other literary style could have captured better the haunting qualities of Octavian's earliest memories. For Octavian, there is even a forbidden door, and his description of this door is a pure expression of gothic style: “the door was terrible, as ghastly in its secrets as legendary Bluebeard's door, behind which his dead, white wives sat at table, streaked with blood from their slit throats.” The gothic style also stands in sharp contrast to the Enlightenment activities described.
The second half of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing unfolds as an epistolary novel, one in which the story is carried forward by letters written by one or more of the characters. Though there are a few letters by Mr. Sharpe and others, the majority are written by a largely uneducated Patriot soldier, Private Evidence Goring, to his sister back home. Whereas Octavian's “manuscript testimony” creates the impression of distance and reflection, the effect of the epistolary novel is quite the opposite. Indeed, what The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing gains in its use of the epistolary is a sense of immediacy and urgency—many of Goring's letters are written in the thick of the action, or immediately after he witnesses a major event. The appearance of truth and realism in a work of fiction, known as verisimilitude, is another quality of the epistolary novel. Anderson amplifies the quality of veracity and helps anchor the eighteenth-century setting in his meticulously researched depiction of the arcane grammar and punctuation that would have been used at the time by somebody like Private Goring. In addition, the letters written by Mr. Sharpe, in which the reader is made aware that he is closing in on Octavian, illustrates how the epistolary novel offers the advantage of maintaining multiple story lines throughout a single narrative.
The American Revolution
Set in the second half of the eighteenth century, the events in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, take place against the backdrop of the American Revolution. In the years building up to the beginning of the war in 1771, the American colonists had grown increasingly frustrated by what they referred to as “taxation without representation.” The origins of the conflict started in 1763, when Britain began imposing large taxes on the colonies to help pay for the cost of defending them. Anderson depicts this escalating conflict and the frustrations of the colonists in the scenes of civil unrest that Octavian witnesses almost every time he ventures into Boston: he provides a first-hand account of the tarring and feathering of the customs inspector, and a second-hand account of the Boston Tea Party. The colonists had long seen Britain as a corrupt society, but the threat of revolution became more serious when they began to fear that the ruling aristocracy was openly hostile to their financial interests. Additionally, deep rifts had developed between Britain and the colonies over issues of corruption, property rights, and the burgeoning political philosophy known as Republicanism, which emphasized liberty. This historical backdrop underscores the hypocrisy of the Patriots who fight for their own liberty even as they deny it to the slaves who take up arms with them.
The Enlightenment was a major movement in eighteenth-century philosophy that emphasized the value of reason, science, and logic. After the devastating religious wars that raged through Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an extended period of peace and prosperity helped put an end to the traditional enemies of rational thought—superstition, mysticism, and the tyranny of the aristocracy. Important thinkers from the Enlightenment began turning to observation, rationality, and systematic thinking as the ultimate means of accessing knowledge. Uninformed, unexamined, and long-held beliefs about the physical world gave way to a new faith in progress and its ability to transform societies. America, free from the dead weight of Europe's centuries-old religious and political conflicts, provided a fertile ground for Enlightenment-era thought to take root and blossom. Many of the Founding Fathers held personal, political, and religious beliefs that were deeply rooted in the movement, and it bolstered the intellectual framework of the American Revolution. In the eighteenth century, philosophical groups similar in purpose to that of the fictional Novanglian College of Lucidity began to sprout up all over the country. Chief among them was the American Philosophical Society, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin. The ideals of the Enlightenment are made explicit early on in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Octavian, describing a series of engraved plates titled the “Golden Age of Man,” explains how they represent Mr. Gitney's ideal of a perfect world: “one where all men and women, united in rationality, pursued knowledge together beneath the green leaves of summer.”
Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing was published in the United States by Candlewick Press on September 12, 2006. The young adult historical novel received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics writing for mainstream publications and also in the online world of literary weblogs.
The vast majority of reviewers praised what Gillian Engberg, writing for Publishers Weekly, describes as the novel's “fluctuations between satire and somber realism, gothic fantasy and factual history.” She is also impressed by Anderson's “episodic, highly ambitious story, deeply rooted in eighteenth-century literary traditions.” Engberg is here referring not only to Anderson's depiction of arcane period language but also to his deployment of gothic elements in the first half of the novel and the epistolary narrative of the second half—both of which were extremely popular forms of storytelling during the period in which The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is set.
Of the many critics who applauded the innovative narrative style of the novel, some shared a concern that Anderson's protagonist was too remote and therefore difficult to identify with. Writing for the United Kingdom's Guardian Unlimited, Karen Hughes describes Octavian as “a rare small beast” and goes on to write: “With his rational emotions and formal language, Octavian remains an eighteenth-century curiosity rather than a poster child for racial integration in high-school America.” Even so, Hughes does not deny the force of what she calls Octavian's “reasoned request for liberty.” In a concurring assessment, Jenny Davidson postulates this idea in The New York Times Book Review: “Octavian's own battle between rage and reason is resolved on the side of reason, possibly at some cost to the reader's ability to identify with him.” Like Hughes, however, Davidson also grants how “the story digs deep under one's skin despite that aggressive self-distancing.”
At least one reviewer, despite allowing for Anderson's considerable talents as an author, was mystified not only by his protagonist but also by the praise the novel received. Writing for the online magazine Slate.com, Emily Bazelon acknowledges that she seems to be “a minority of one,” but nevertheless goes on to explain her negative reaction this way: “A good book needs to do more than evoke horror, however deftly. It needs to use that horror to make us understand as well as feel—to bring us inside a character.” Bazelon has a bigger concern as well, worrying that Anderson's novel is not a suitable entry in the genre of young adult fiction:
[T]he warping effect of Octavian's upbringing takes over, and in keeping faith with the character's diminished reality, he leaves us with a narrator who is less vivid and real. Which means that his book may disturb kids without provoking them in the ways that Anderson…intended.
Bazelon is correct when she notes that complaintssuch as hers have been remarkably few and far between. Generally, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing has succeeded both critically and commercially—it was a 2007 Michael L. Printz Honor Book and the winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Young People. As such, it's safe to say that the critics would agree that Anderson has not only made a profoundly important contribution to young adult literature—he has also raised the bar for what is to come.
Jean M. Cannon
Jean M. Cannon is a freelance writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. In this essay, she discusses Anderson's satiric treatment of eighteenth-century America.
M.T. Anderson's 2006 novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing places readers in the late eighteenth-century world of Boston, both before and during the American Revolution. This period of American history—often lauded in textbooks as the birthplace of such concepts as freedom, equality, and democracy—is presented through the unusual point of view of a young boy named Octavian, who is schooled in the ideals of the time period, and yet finds himself at odds with his society after he discovers he and his mother are both slaves. Octavian, who, along with his mother, is owned by the scholars of “The Novanglian College of Lucidity,” is educated from a young age in the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century movement which emphasized scientific progress, rational thought, utility, and personal liberty. Throughout The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, however, Anderson calls into question these Enlightenment ideals of civilization that formed the foundation of American government and society and, through the voice of a young slave, uncovers a darker, often unacknowledged side of eighteenth-century America and its revolution. The experiences of Octavian reveal that though the founding fathers hoped to establish a nation built on liberty for all, the country was—and is—still plagued by inequality, discrimination, and racism.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is, as a reviewer in the New York Times phrased it, “a brilliant satire” of the utopian ideals upon which America was founded.
Throughout The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Anderson weds the style of the novel to the eighteenth-century ideals of balance and objectivity. The title page, presented in eighteenth-century script, declares that the content of the book is “taken from accounts by his [Octavian's] own hand and other sundry sources” and have been “collected” by “Mr. M.T. Anderson of Boston.” Thus, the reader is encouraged to regard the book not as a novel written by one author, but as a collection of writing specimens gathered, arranged, and edited by a gentleman of scientific sensibility. As the reader engages with the book, he or she finds that though the bulk of the story is “drawn primarily from the Manuscript Testimony of the Boy Octavian”—that is, written in first-person point of view in the voice of Octavian—it also contains newspaper clippings, private letters, scientific articles, and notes written by the scholars of the Novanglian College. Often, Anderson uses a combination of these writing samples to show differing viewpoints of a single event: for example, the Novanglians' dissection of Octavian's mother's body after her death (she dies of smallpox after a botched inoculation by one of the College members) is narrated in Octavian's testimony, in a letter from Dr. John Trefusis to a friend, and in a scholarly article entitled “Observations Upon the Progression of the Smallpox in Homo Afri.” Octavian's account of his mother's death is intimate: the grieving son comments that there was “no kindness, no gentleness” in his mother's painful and protracted death, and when he attempts to describe his discovery of the dissection he is so overwhelmed by emotion that he scratches out the paragraphs with ink. In the article by Mssrs. Gitney and Sharpe, however, the events of Cassiopeia's (Octavian's mother's) death and dismemberment are reported coolly, using scientific vocabulary to describe incisions made into the most private parts of the woman's body. A small mention is made of Octavian's discovery of the scene, with emphasis on the “startling savagery” with which the boy confronted the scholars. Anderson here manages to turn the Enlightenment form, the scientific article, on its head: in the article's sheer rationality, it, not Octavian's behavior, seems “savage.
” Dr. Trefusis's letter to his colleague blends these two extremes of emotion and reason. Though Dr. Trefusis lauds the article (with more than a hint of irony) for having been “cleansed entirely of all the cloudings of passion, the confusions of humanity, the irritation of pity, the sorties of affection, indeed, anything which might mark the beating, breathing, humane breast,” he soon reveals that his purpose in writing his friend is to amend the article with facts unrecorded or unmentioned. Before dissecting the body of Cassiopeia, Dr. Trefusis reports, Mr. Gitney spent a day holding the corpse and whispering words of love into its ear. Dr. Trefusis—who ultimately frees Octavian at the end of the novel—argues that these feelings and emotions, which are as “true and empirical” as medical data, should be accepted and studied. Through balancing Octavian's testimony and the scientific article with Dr. Trefusis's reaction, Anderson is able to argue for a more sensitive evaluation of fundamental human emotion than is typically allowed in Enlightenment thought. Dr. Trefusis, unlike his fellow scholars, focuses on traits that are held in common by all humans rather than those that can be readily categorized.
Though Anderson uses these layered narratives to endorse the viably “enlightened” line of reason represented by Dr. Trefusis, he falls short of unilaterally vilifying the other members of the Novanglian school. Perhaps one of the book's most potent strengths is that the character of Octavian—both product and possession of the school—successfully points out the internal contradictions of the Novanglians' ideals and lifestyle. In the beginning of the novel—before Octavian finds that he is in reality an American slave rather than African royalty—the boy is able to convey to the reader both the scholars' love of knowledge and the brutalities often executed in the name of it. As a silent but incredibly observant witness to life in the college, Octavian both benefits from the scholars' philosophical and musical instruction (Octavian, throughout the novel, never rejects book-reading or music) but comes to mistrust the scholars due to their frequent cruelties. For example, Octavian watches Mr. Gitney and his colleagues “pet a dog for some days, then drown it, and time its drowning.” After Mr. Gitney poisons Octavian's pet dog Cloud, he consoles the grieving boy by questioning him about his sorrow and transcribing his answers dispassionately. Octavian, sensing the scientific detachment of Mr. Gitney, tells him “what he wants to know,” thus beginning his habit of subverting the scholars due to the lack of humanity in their methods. Though Octavian states that he “did not believe they ever meant unkindness,” his gratitude toward the Novanglians' is frequently undercut by his ability to point out the hypocrisy of their ideals.
Octavian's powers of observation are perhaps sharpest when describing the Novanglian picnic early in the novel. Initially, Octavian represents the picnic as a happy childhood memory; it “suggested health and good humor, in a way that so many…days, spent stammering out Latin in dark rooms, did not.” In addition, the setting of the outing reminds him of a painting entitled “The Golden Age of Man” that was created by a scholar who wished to represent a perfect world. In the painting, beautiful men and women “pursued knowledge together beneath the green leaves of summer and the distant blue of sacred mountains.”
The Novanglian picnic, however, lacks the utopian adornments of the hopeful scholar's artwork. Octavian notices, for example, that the academic pursuits of the men of the school have made them far less than beautiful: the painter has palsied hands from executing brush strokes, experiments with electricity have left one of the scientists “with a permanent jitter and no sense of smell,” and Dr. Trefusis is accused of being withered and eaten away by venereal disease. His condition, ironically, sparks a conversation about love, though it is quickly squelched as frivolous. This discussion of love, however, leads Octavian toward observations of the sexual and romantic relations between his mother, the men, and the men's wives. While the scholars grovel before Cassiopeia, the wives—rather bored with the bluster of the men, Octavian suggests—separate themselves and ignore both the flirtatious banter and the philosophical musings. Octavian reflects that though the wives had planned the utopian picnic, they seemed to have no place in it. The real world—as opposed to the envisioned perfect one—appears to Octavian, as well as to the reader, as far less than democratic.
Democracy, however, is one of the central topics of conversation during the picnic. Mr. Gitney, at the close of the day, pontificates dramatically about the future of America, and likens it to a canvas stretched and ready for the artist's hand to paint the picture of a perfect, civilized world. Progress, Mr. Gitney argues, will make a nation of free and prosperous men. Octavian, perhaps foreshadowing the knowledge of social inequality he later discovers, sardonically refers to this speech as an “homage to his desires for a world that cannot be.” Here, Anderson shows a darker side of America's roots. The bold delineations of the rights of mankind made by Enlightenment thinkers, the rejection of the dark, brutal heritage of religious extremism and persecution in favor of pure, unemotional logic, are indeed impressive, he argues, but they fail to take into account the social realities of the time.
Immediately upon his return from the picnic, Octavian meets Bono, Mr. Gitney's valet, and is soon enlightened as to his slave status and his existence as a “zoological experiment” within the school. Anderson depicts this crucial moment with yet another dramatic clash of narratives: the page of Octavian's narrative in which Bono reveals to the boy his slave status (and allows him to cry) is faced by a newspaper clipping from the Boston Gazette, which announces the sale of Octavian and his mother. Above and below the announcement for the slave auction are advertisements for horses and linens, emphasizing the fact that human beings in the eighteenth century were considered merely an additional type of commodity within a market. Through Bono, Octavian receives a new education, learning that the ideals put forward by the Novanglians—liberty, democracy, enlightenment—were limited only to those who already had freedom. Octavian must face, as reviewer Jenny Davidson put it in the New York Times his own “battle between rage and reason” and leave a world where rational thought has resulted in the most irrational of crimes.
Octavian's escape from the cool rationalism of the College into the emotional fray of the revolutionary war is in some ways cathartic. Liberty finally becomes more than a concept for him. It becomes something real, something worth fighting for and winning. He fights alongside other “patriots” with gusto. But “liberty,” like all Enlightenment ideas, is subject to various interpretations, as Octavian discovers after his recapture. Mr. Sharpe's definition of liberty, he learns, involves the freedom to do as he pleases, including owning slaves. In the end, when Dr. Trefusis and Octavian escape, both are “traitors.” But, again, Anderson turns the traditional understanding of the words “patriot” and “traitor” on their heads. In a society in which freedom means freedom to own slaves, he seems to say, the only option for a true lover of liberty is treason.
Anderson's complicated look at our national rhetoric and its philosophical underpinnings may make some readers uncomfortable, even indignant. Americans are unaccustomed to thinking critically about their country's complicated origins. However, critical thinking about America's Enlightenment roots is particularly important now, as America blithely pushes its definition of “liberty” on other world nations with a combination of economic and military force. Anderson calls on us to stop to wonder if, like Octavian, the recipients of our gift of liberty might have in mind for themselves a different future.
Source: Jean M. Cannon, Critical Essay on The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following review, Hughes discusses the search for identity in Enlightenment-era America.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974), a Newbery Honor Book by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, tells the tragic story of how the Meeker family implodes during the American Revolution when one son becomes a Patriot while his brother and father remain loyal to the British.
- The title character in S. I. Martin's Jupiter Williams (2007) shares many qualities with the title character in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. A seemingly privileged Sierra Leonean youth living amongst other wealthy Africans in 1800 London, Jupiter must leave his sheltered existence to bring his younger brother back from a dark side of London that he never knew existed.
- Though it is set in the present day, Walter Dean Myers's novel Monster (1999) tells another story of a teenager who gets caught up in the violent realities of an adult world. Myers's innovative narrative techniques and authentic adolescent dialogue parallel Anderson's experimental style.
- Related in alternating narratives and stirring free verse, The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (2006) is a captivating account of the life of an escaped nineteenth-century Cuban poet and slave who endured unspeakable brutality yet still secretly learned to read and write.
- Laurie Halse Anderson's post-Revolutionary historical novel Fever 1793 (2002) tells the story of a sixteen-year-old girl whose hardships during Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic of 1793 shatter her comfortable existence but ultimately transform her from a stubborn child into a capable young woman.
Octavian is a rare small beast. Arriving in Boston from Africa in his mother's womb, he has been taken up by a group of scientifically minded gentlemen who use him as a lab rat. On fire with the ideas of the late Enlightenment, these stalwarts of the College of Lucidity set about investigating whether Homo Afri is as capable as any white man of learning Latin, mastering Euclid and fiddling the old European masters.
For a while the answer is a resounding yes. Octavian is a perfect little prodigy of polite learning. In fact he is a bit of a prig. Dressed in rich silks that make him look like a tiny bird of paradise, he knows his Tacitus, not to mention his Handel. He can tell you precisely when Venus will transit the Sun. And yet there is a dark undertow to all this hot-housing. Every time Octavian uses the chamber pot, the contents are weighed and recorded in a large book. For despite all his privilege, he remains an experiment, a thing, a chattel to be bought and sold by his white masters.
This precarious status becomes even more pronounced once changes in the body politic start to impact on the fetid world of the College of Lucidity (one of its last gasps has been to throw a “pox party” in which the new science of inoculation is put to the test). Rumours abound all over New England that African slaves are beginning to rise in revolt against their owners. British redcoats are stirring things even further, telling bonded workers that their best chance of freedom lies, paradoxically, in siding with their colonial masters.
Traumatised by the death of his mother at the pox party—the only African to succumb—Octavian makes a dash for freedom. Working as a farmhand, pub musician and foot soldier in the Patriot army, he eventually sees action at Bunker Hill before being bundled back to his owners in chains and with a vicious bit between his teeth. The book ends with Octavian's escape, thanks to a big dose of opiates in the tea of the self-proclaimed “Sons of Liberty” who preside over the diabolical college.
Most of this story is told by Octavian himself, and one of the wonders of the book is M. T. Anderson's ability to ventriloquise the voice of an educated African slave. Octavian doesn't simply sound like the 18th century, he somehow becomes it, embodying a sensibility that you would think impossible to fake. The result, inevitably, is not always easy reading. The language is antique, the psychology alien. Despite being marketed as a book for teenagers, Anderson makes no easy concessions to contemporary concerns. With his rational emotions and formal language, Octavian remains an 18th-century curiosity rather than a poster child for racial integration in high-school America.
And yet anyone prepared to keep faith with the demands that Anderson makes of his readers is due a huge reward. The language may be chilly but it has a swell of elegance that carries you along like a clipper. The “Sons of Liberty” may be heinous, but in their bungled experiments you begin to see the internal contradictions inherent in the whole Enlightenment project. Octavian himself may be an odd fish, but his reasoned request for liberty stays with you longer than any amount of hot-teared playing to the gallery. This is a book which arrives from America groaning with rewards and reputation. It deserves to do just as well here.
Source : Kathryn Hughes, “Experiments in Learning,” in The Guardian, January 20, 2007, p. 2.
In the following review, Davidson touches on the hallmarks of style in Anderson's previous novels and discusses the advancement of literary technique on display in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Source: Jenny Davidson, “Slave to Science,” in The New York Times/nytimes.com, November 12, 2006, p. 2.
In the following review, Bazelon explains what she thinks the critics got wrong in their praise for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.
The cover of this year's winner of the National Book Award for young-adult fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I: The Pox Party, shows a human head encased in a thick metal mask, which looks as sinister as its function: a method of punishment for rebellious slaves. The mask has slits for eyes, the shape of a nose, but no opening for a mouth. Instead, a cold iron bit prevents the slave from talking, and almost from breathing. When the bit is forced onto the book's slave hero, Octavian, after he has run away and is recaptured, he recounts:
I screamed something—I cannot now recall what—as they swung down the bit and it struck my teeth and scraped the flesh of my mouth. The bit intruding, I was bent almost double with gagging, and could not get a breath…I fell then to my knees; I fell upon the floor where my mother had fallen, sick with the fever; and I commenced to vomit through the mask, choking all the while on the dirty and acidic issue which clogged the mask and my mouth.
The description both echoes and inverts another one in the book: Octavian's remembrance of his mother's death from smallpox: “In the extremity of the disease, her features could not be recognized as hers. Her visage was an assemblage of holes, the nostrils flaring with each breath.”
These passages demonstrate the considerable skill of the author, M.T. Anderson, to evoke indelible images. But does that make the book they reside in a good one? The reviewers thought so. In addition to the National Book Award, Anderson's book garnered accolades in places like the New York Times Book Review, the American Library Associations' Booklist, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the literature blog The Mumpsimus. These various outlets billed Pox Party as “a striking advance,” “astounding,” and, oddly, given the grim subject matter, “exhilarating.” I hated this book. Since I seem to be in a minority of one, at least among adult commentators, I've been trying to figure out why.
A good book needs to do more than evoke horror, however deftly. It needs to use that horror to make us understand as well as feel—to bring us inside a character, to open up a corner of the psyche. That responsibility is arguably heightened for young-adult books, the often awkward category that's meant to be read by teenagers but is often shelved in the children's area of stores and libraries. Young-adult books are typically of more interest to preteen readers (or adults) than they are to teens. I remember foraging on the YA library shelves as an 11- and 12-year-old. And when I think of kids that age reading a story like Octavian's, I want the horror they absorb to be more than creepy and mawkish. Pox Party failed that test for me. The voice of Octavian never broke free of its own metal casing. He remains disembodied—pitiable, no question, but too remote to actually pity.
Octavian is a black child of the Revolutionary War era. He and his mother live with a bunch of old white philosophers at what's called the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Over the course of the first half of the book, Octavian realizes that his Latin tutorials and violin lessons are an experiment—the men want to see if an African child can develop intellectually the way a white child can. When the political uncertainties of the war crash over them, the scholars turn on Octavian and his mother, and the depth of their evil is exposed.
In his rave review on The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney wonders if Pox Party was sold as young-adult fiction simply because Anderson has written other YA books. That seems likely, for marketing reasons, but I wonder, too, if the YA handle doesn't give an author greater license to brand a book around a message. Anderson says Pox Party is about “how we lead our lives, willing to let others suffer so that we can have our luxuries.” He adds that the same goes for his earlier book Feed, in which the teen hero rebels against a government-sponsored computer feed implanted straight into kids' minds. The lesson of these books is subversive, but no less moralistic for being so. In Pox Party, Anderson slathers on the teachable moments by exploding the founding American myth. “Discuss the contradiction between the colonists' propaganda decrying what they call their enslavement by the British government and the colonists' ownership of slaves, some of whom they sent in their stead to fight the British,” the publisher's discussion guide instructs.
Who isn't for the explosion of founding myths, or for using books as the bombs? As Ann Brashares, author of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, wrote in a New York Times oped last year, “Reading is possibly the safest and best way for young adults to explore challenging, complicated subjects.” That's true of sex, the subject Brashares had in mind. And it can also be true for slavery. To give Anderson his due, he writes about slavery and its repercussions duringan earlier era than the classic YA titles that come to mind (Black Boy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Sula). But because of the frustrating vacancy of Octavian, his book is more graphic and horrifying than those books without being anywhere near as edifying. In these classics, the characters' humanity is a retort to slavery's efforts to dehumanize them. Pox Party falls far short of this mark. Anderson's effort to portray the warping effect of Octavian's upbringing takes over, and in keeping faith with the character's diminished reality, he leaves us with a narrator who is less vivid and real. Which means that his book may disturb kids without provoking them in the ways Anderson, and the publishing guide, intended.
That's not to say YA books must avoid unpleasant topics for fear of harming their impressionable audience. When I was 11 or so, I went on a Holocaust reading tear. I read some good books and some bad books, and I didn't much care about the difference. What drove my reading was a desire to force myself to think about unspeakable, awful things that I would never have to live through, and to see if I could stand it. I remember this reading as bingelike: I stayed up late racing through page after page. Would I have been better off without those books at that moment? For sure I would have had fewer nightmares. And now that I'm a parent, that's what I wish for my own children. On the other hand, I pursued my Holocaust obsession because it felt like my own, and it was in my power to moderate it. Kids “can read one word a minute or one thousand and stuff it under the pillow if it gets too much,” Bashares says of YA reading. “They supply the pictures in their own minds; no one else's are forced upon them.”
So, I'm not going to start pulling Pox Party from the library YA shelves. Instead I'm content to rely on the kids to spare themselves. That seems safe enough because of another feature of Anderson's writing—its difficulty. Pox Party is replete with too-good-for-the-SAT vocabulary words and painstaking historical accuracy. (In the author's note, Anderson goes so far as to regret an anachronistic reference to “tricorne” hats. Thanks.) The intricate and windy 18th-century prose should suffice to ensure that any 12- or 16-year-old who reads this book is a 12- or 16-year-old who really, really wanted to. The adult raves aside, I wonder how many of them there are. Pox Party bears all the worthy marks of a book that makes adults swoon and kids roll their eyes.
Source: Emily Bazelon, “A Pox on the Pox Party,” in Slate, November 20, 2006, p. 3.
Anderson, M. T., The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Candlewick Press, September 2006.
Bazelon, Emily, “A Pox on Pox Party,” Slate. Retrieved March 15, 2008, from http://www.slate.com/id/2154154.
Davidson, Jenny, “Slave to Science,” in New York Times Book Review, Retrieved March 15, 2008, from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE3DC103FF931 A25752C1A9609C8B63
Engberg, Gillian, Review of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, by M.T. Anderson. Booklist. Retrieved March 15, 2008 from http://www.amazon.com/Astonishing-Octavian-Nothing-Traitor-Nation/dp/0763624020
Hughes, Kathryn, “Experiments in Learning,” in Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved March 15, 2008, from http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1993765,00.html
Mehegan, David, “Like His Protagonists, He's a Character Study,” in The Boston Globe. Retrieved March 15, 2008 from www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2006/12/19
Bober, Natalie S., Countdown to Independence, Simon Pulse, 2007.
This historical overview is a thorough and thought-provoking investigation of the major events preceding the American Revolution, both in America and England. This history also offers some surprises in its objective portrayal of key figures like Benjamin Franklin and King George.
Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Prestwick House, 2004.
Frederick Douglass describes in his own words how his belief in the power of education allowed him to rise up from a family of slaves to become a revered statesman, orator, and writer—as well as one of the most iconic success stories in American history.
Greenburg, Kenneth S. The Confessions of Nat Turner: And Related Documents (The Bedford Series in History and Culture), Bedford/St. Mark's, 1996.
Greenburg weighs in on the saga of Nat Turner's notorious 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, with this definitive analysis of the testimony that Turner gave just prior to his hanging.
Long, Edward, The History of Jamaica: Reflections on Its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government, McGill Queen's University Press, 2003.
Cited by Anderson as a prototype for the character of Octavian in his Author's Note, Francis Williams was a Jamaican student whose education at Cambridge University was sponsored by the Duke of Montagu. Long, a member of Jamaica's aristocracy, wrote the first and most thoroughly fleshed out account of William's life, but his observations are heavily influenced by the same kind of prejudice and bias that Octavian experiences in the novel.