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