Skip to content

M. T. Anderson – The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party

July 23, 2009

88. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson (2006)
Octavian Nothing, Volume 1

Read By: Peter Francis James
Length: 8h 19m (368 pages)

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

Started: 06 July 2009
Finished: 20 July 2009

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? John Green mentioned the second volume as the best book of the year, and since I love John Green’s books, and enjoyed the other books he mentioned as runners-up (the ones I’ve read, anyways), I had to check this one out as well.

Is he a slave or
a scientific study?
Neither, he’s human.

Summary: Octavian is a young slave living in Boston immediately prior to the American revolution, although he’s a slave unlike any other. His owners are members of the Novanglian College of Lucidity, and he is dressed in fine clothing, not required to work, and is given an education in art, science, and the classics to equal that of any prince. However, under the prompting of his mother, and the house slave Bono, he comes to deduce the truth – that he is the subject of an experiment to determine whether the intellectual capacities of Africans can equal those of Europeans… an experiment that the investors of the College wish to fail. As Octavian growing increasingly disenchanted with his captivity – for his chains, though invisible, bind him just as strongly as metal – a parallel (if hypocritical) desire for freedom is fomenting amongst the colonists, and Octavian must reconcile the realities and attitudes of pre-Revolution America with the person he knows he is.

Review: While this book is absolutely everything all of the glowing reviews say it is in terms of being thought-provoking, conceptually rich, meticulously researched, and wonderfully written in authentic 18th-century style, I’m sorry to say that I just didn’t connect with it. I think this was in large part because I didn’t empathize with Octavian as a narrator. I mean, he’s undoubtedly a sympathetic character, but the prose (which is mostly drawn from his “manuscript testimony”) felt so intellectualized and so removed from the events that it never really drew me in or engaged my emotions. I found the section that was told in letters from a young rebel soldier much more engaging than Octavian’s parts, just because I found the voice more immediate and relatable.

It’s an interesting story, and horrible in the fact that the Gothic grotesqueries that it portrays could legitimately have happened. It’s ostensibly a YA novel, but it’s not to be confused with the more fluffy teen books that also fall under the YA heading – this is dark, and dense, and is going to require some work – it is certainly not going to appeal to every teen, but for those that stick with it, there’s a lot here to be mined. I do appreciate that it doesn’t talk down to its audience, but at the same time, by the end I did find myself going “yes, freedom fighters owning slaves, how hypocritical, I get it.” Perhaps if I’d been more engaged with the main character, his journey would have had a bigger impact on me. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I’m not sorry I read it, and I will be reading the second volume (this one cuts off pretty well in the middle of the story), but I wasn’t as blown away by it as many others were. I’d recommend it for teens who are looking for something a little more serious than the standard Twilight fare, historical fiction fans who want a unique perspective on the Revolutionary War, and for adults who need convincing that YA novels can be literary too.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Ready When You Are, C.B., Chain Reading, Bookshelves of Doom, The Children’s Literature Book Club, She Reads Books, Vulpes Libres, 5 Minutes for Books, In Search of Giants, The Curious Reader, Sadie-Jean’s Book Blog, A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy, Becky’s Book Reviews
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

There would have been plenty if I’d been reading it, but I don’t note down vocab during my audiobooks.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2009 9:30 am

    Thanks for the link. I’m with Mr. Green as you know. I think many young adults are with you. But it does say something that you’ll be reading volume two.

  2. July 23, 2009 9:42 am

    C.B. – Yeah, it’s not that I didn’t find it interesting, or worth reading, it’s more that I never got involved enough with the story that I felt like I HAD TO go back and read more right away.

  3. July 23, 2009 10:05 am

    I haven’t reviewed this yet, but I thought it was pretty good. I have the second book out from the library at the moment but the size rather surprised me and I haven’t picked it up yet… It’s not due back for a while, anyway, so it can wait.

  4. July 23, 2009 3:10 pm

    I don’t read YA books but I enjoyed reading your review.

  5. July 23, 2009 5:36 pm

    Oooo that’s a good haiku! Very compelling…

  6. July 23, 2009 7:43 pm

    I’m all for audio books, but this is one that I would definitely recommend reading the book. There were elements of the printing that made it more powerful for me.
    I think Octavian’s language added to my empathy for him–I felt like he was so trapped by this intellectual person they made him become. He never really fit in anywhere.
    I thought the second one wasn’t quite as good, but still worth the time.

  7. July 23, 2009 11:04 pm

    I liked it even less than you. I won’t even read the next one.

  8. July 28, 2009 11:14 am

    This was one of those rare books I felt I ought to finish, but I couldn’t bear to as the horrors piled up. I stopped just short of the end. After reading Thirsty and Burger Wuss and Feed I am convinced that M.T. Anderson is one of the best and smartest YA authors currently out there, though I also thought his spoofy kids adventure novel was an insult to kids and a yawn to adults. I think the problem may be that his characters are such whipping boys to his fantastic imaginiation, they can lose a bit of their reality. In Octavian the setting and the way he slipped into the period diction totally dazzled me, but it wasn’t enough. I know what you mean about the narration. Shelley has a good notion; my own impression was that Anderson might have been trying to show that that Octavian was so deeply traumatized, he was purposely was tamping down his rage to pen a formal, objective narrative in the best Enlightenment style, because he was so determined to make his story heard and credited.

    I was actually much more interested in the character of Octavian’s mother–maybe because Octavian was. She seemed more flesh and blood.

  9. September 5, 2009 12:23 pm

    I have been looking for something interesting in regards to the civil war for a challenge. This looks great! Thanks.


  1. M. T. Anderson – The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 2: The Kingdom on the Waves « Fyrefly’s Book Blog

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: