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February 11, 2011

New Books: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation

Not for the first time, I’m stretching the definition of new here a bit. The first entry in this two-book series by M. T. Anderson came out in hardcover way back in 2006, and the only "new" aspect about either now is their debut in a lovely updated paperback format last month.

But, despite the National Book Award won by volume one, The Pox Party, both of these books were entirely new to me. And while that honor, stamped atop the covers of the new paperback editions, lifted my expectations of their quality, well...I had no idea. This is the best young-adult fiction I've read since I began covering children's books, and the first I'd recommend to adult friends as well since Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Anderson's tale truly is astonishing.

It's about (and largely narrated by) the title character, the Boston-born son of an enslaved African woman in mid-eighteenth-century Boston. He is thus a slave himself, of course, but he doesn't know it for many years, as his "owner" is a the leader of a philosophical society that has decided, among its many other Enlightenment-inspired projects, to see what happens when you raise an African boy in European fashion. So Octavian and his mother (who develops a kind of salon of her own of infatuated society intellectuals and artists) wear fine clothes and eat well alongside their "masters," and perform no labor beyond that of Octavian's education, which matches the best available to white children—Latin, Greek, "modern" science, etc.

Eventually, however, Octavian discovers the truth—that he's not merely a slave, but one who's been the subject of a lifelong scientific experiment. Worse yet, circumstances eventually require the society to seek a new benefactor for its funding; the source of its continued operation is a group of southern plantation owners. They require that Octavian's "equality" experiment be rigged so that he will fail it, thus justifying their continued use of slavery to amount their riches, all of which has a predictably dire effect on the lives of both Octavian and his mother.

Meanwhile, amid all this, the hostilities between the American colonies and the English government are growing until the Revolutionary War finally breaks out. The bitter irony of the slave-owning colonists' fight for liberty is not lost on Octavian, as the New England patriots start to fear that English promises of liberation will cause their slaves to rise up against them. (A real-life regiment of ex-slaves that was created by Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor of Virginia, in response to Patrick Henry's uprising in that state, plays a central role in the second book, The Kingdom on the Waves.)

The real history, and Anderson's remarkable treatment of it—the American Revolution in these pages is neither as pure of motive nor as sure of success as it's generally portrayed, especially in books for children—would be enough on its own to make these books engrossing. But as vividly described as it is, it's really just the backdrop for the story, and the voice, of Octavian himself, as he discovers the devastating truth about his true place in his world, then questions that truth and finally refuses to let it define him. He's an unforgettably powerful character, rich and deep and real, the kind you start to see cinematically, hearing the voice of name actors (I settled on Larry Gilliard Jr. of The Wire) as you read Octavian’s words.

I should warn that these are among the most adult of young-adult books I’ve ever read. The text itself is dense, written as it is in true-to-era colonial language and sentence structure. And then there’s the subject matter: Not surprisingly given his situation, as well as the war he's living amidst, some extremely upsetting things happen to and around Octavian, and the reader is not spared their full force. That impact is part of what makes the work as strong as it is, in my opinion, but you’ll want to be sure your young adult is prepared. In other words, these are not the YA books with which most smart 10-year-olds will want to be stretching their boundaries.

But high-school kids who are strong readers looking for challenging adult-level material will be blown away by the Octavian Nothing books, I think. Heck, most parents will be blown away by them, as I certainly was.

[Images courtesy of Candlewick Press]

1 comment:

  1. I've heard about these books for years now and never read them but they sound amazing!! would love to read them!