The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1: The Pox Party

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1: The Pox Party

4.2 32
by M. T. Anderson

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Now in paperback, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.

Young Octavian is being raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers — but it is only after he opens a forbidden door that learns the hideous nature of their experiments, and his own chilling role

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Now in paperback, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.

Young Octavian is being raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers — but it is only after he opens a forbidden door that learns the hideous nature of their experiments, and his own chilling role them. Set in Revolutionary Boston, M. T. Anderson’s mesmerizing novel takes place at a time when Patriots battled to win liberty while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim. The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel reimagines past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.

"Anderson’s imaginative and highly intelligent exploration of . . . the ambiguous history of America’s origins will leave readers impatient for the sequel." — THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

James's crisp annunciation and measured intonation is well-suited to the 18th-century language and phrasing Anderson employs in his fascinating, provocative Revolutionary War�era novel, winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and also a 2007 Printz Honor Book. As young Octavian's story slowly (sometimes too slowly) unfolds, the boy learns that he is a slave and that the scientists and philosophers with whom he and his mother (an African princess who was kidnapped by slave traders) live are studying them as part of an experiment to determine whether Africans are "a separate and distinct species." The ill-advised Pox Party of the title, during which the philosophers inoculate their guests against the scourge of smallpox, marks a dramatic turning point that sends Octavian's life journey in a new direction. There's no question the premise is intriguing and the examination of issues noble. However, the meaty subject matter and Anderson's numerous stylistic devices (e.g. the use of different points of view and letters in dialect from another character) render this a challenging listen even for a sophisticated audience. Ages 14-up. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
VOYA - Teresa Copeland
Octavian and his mother live at the Novanglian College of Lucidity, a house full of scientists and philosophers in pre-Revolutionary War Boston. There Octavian learns the classics, several languages, the manners of a gentleman, and how to play the violin, while his mother is treated as the exiled Princess of a far away land. He gradually realizes, however, that these scientists are observing him as part of a long-term experiment, and then the turmoil of the war comes and everything changes. The tale starts and ends with Octavian's point of view, from his earliest memories to his teen years, with part narrated by another and parts as letters between principal characters. At the center is the question of why American rebels excluded slaves from their quest for freedom at a time when other countries, including England, were abolishing slavery. Octavian's strange childhood is described so vividly and with such a strong voice that even the weirdest parts seem real. The slow but intriguing plot will put off many teens, as will the difficulty of the text-especially the letters from a barely educated revolutionary soldier written in dialect. As this is volume one of two, there is a cliffhanger ending. Teens looking for a challenge will find plenty to sink into here. The questions raised about race and freedom are well developed and leave a different perspective on the Revolutionary War than most novels.
Judy Beemer
The acclaimed author of Feed now escorts readers to a haunting, almost Gothic, Boston, just as the Revolutionary War brews. Octavian appears the privileged recipient of a classical education and lifestyle with rational scholars. Only after he dares to open a forbidden door does he realize that he is really the object of a ghastly experiment affecting not just him but his entire race. Octavian Nothing gains verisimilitude from supposedly first-person sources—from classical, scholarly testimonies by Octavian to rough but idealistic soldiers' letters. However delightful the style, the story's implied questions are tough: Has our country from its origin been motivated more by economic gain than by ideals of equality? When and how does rational scientific investigation mislead the public? Octavian Nothing provokes thought by its haunting retelling of history with sophistication enough for adults as well as young adults. Both can look forward to volume 2.
AGERANGE: Ages 15 to adult.

To quote the review of the audiobook in KLIATT, May 2007: This National Book Award winner is disturbing and fascinating. We first meet a boy, Octavian, who lives with his beautiful mother in pampered luxury in a home of strange men, known by numbers rather than names. The setting and language are archaic. Gradually we learn that Octavian and his mother are African and the setting is Boston at the dawn of the American Revolution. They are living at the Novanglian College of Lucidity as the objects of an experiment to discover if Africans have the same mental capacity as Caucasians. Later, as the intellectual and artistic brilliance of both mother and son prove incontrovertible, we learn that the college�s funding by Southern plantation owners will end. This reversal catapults Octavian and his mother into the more typical life of slaves, from a life that has ill prepared them to assume the groveling humility that might spare them the harshest punishments. In fact, they endure the worst tortures. Octavian eventually escapes to a fate that I eagerly await in the promised sequel. Anderson is brilliant in maintaining the language and prose of the 18th century. The detail is rich and authentic. Anderson carefully distinguishes between historical facts that inspired the novel and his highly imaginative and gothic fiction. This is a novel with many moods, each captivating, if often dark and eerie. Reviewer: Nancy Chaplin
March 2008 (Vol. 42, No.2)

School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-In this fascinating and eye-opening Revolution-era novel, Octavian, a black youth raised in a Boston household of radical philosophers, is given an excellent classical education. He and his mother, an African princess, are kept isolated on the estate, and only as he grows older does he realize that while he is well dressed and well fed, he is indeed a captive being used by his guardians as part of an experiment to determine the intellectual acuity of Africans. As the fortunes of the Novanglian College of Lucidity change, so do the nature and conduct of their experiments. The boy's guardians host a "pox party" where everyone is inoculated with the disease in hopes that they will then be immune to its effects, but, instead, Octavian's mother dies. He runs away and ends up playing the fiddle and joining in the Patriots' cause. He's eventually captured and brought back to his household where he's bound and forced to wear an iron mask until one of his more sympathetic instructors engineers his escape. Readers will have to wait for the second volume to find out the protagonist's fate. The novel is written in 18th-century language from Octavian's point of view and in letters written by a soldier who befriends him. Despite the challenging style, this powerful novel will resonate with contemporary readers. The issues of slavery and human rights, racism, free will, the causes of war, and one person's struggle to define himself are just as relevant today. Anderson's use of factual information to convey the time and place is powerfully done.-Sharon Rawlins, NJ Library for the Blind and Handicapped, Trenton Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A historical novel of prodigious scope, power and insight, set against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War. Readers are seduced by a gothic introduction to the child Octavian, whose bizarre situation is both lavish and eerie. Octavian is domiciled with a gentleman scholar at the "College of Lucidity." A sentient being, he is a living experiment, from his classical education to the notated measurement of his bodily intake and output; as such, the study will degenerate from earnest scholarly investigation to calculated sociopolitical propaganda. Upon learning that he's a slave, Octavian resolves to prove his excellence. But events force the destitute College to depend on a new benefactor who demands research that proves the inferiority of the black race. Like many Africans, Octavian runs away, joining the Revolutionary army, which fights for "liberty," while ironically never assuring slaves freedom. Written in a richly faithful 18th-century style, the revelations of Octavian's increasingly degraded circumstances slowly, horrifyingly unfold to the reader as they do to Octavian. The cover's gruesomely masked Octavian epitomizes a nation choking on its own hypocrisy. This is the Revolutionary War seen at its intersection with slavery through a disturbingly original lens. (Historical fiction. YA-adult)

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Product Details

Candlewick Press
Publication date:
Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Series , #1
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
1090L (what's this?)
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt



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

I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spirit-ous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door to the ice-chamber.

By the well, servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frock-coats of asbestos.

Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.

How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.

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; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twitching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts.

I did not find it strange that I was raised with no one father, nor did I marvel at the singularity of any other article in my upbringing. It is ever the lot of children to accept their circumstances as universal, and their articularities as general.

So I did not ask why I was raised in a house by many men, none of whom claimed blood relation to me. I thought not to inquire why my mother stayed in this house, or why we alone were given names - mine, Octavian; hers, Cassiopeia - when all the others in the house were designated by number.

The owner of the house, Mr. Gitney, or as he styled himself, 03-01, had a large head and little hair and a dollop of a nose. He rarely dressed if he did not have to go out, but shuffled most of the time through his mansion in a banyan-robe and undress cap, shaking out his hands as if he'd washed them newly. He did not see to my instruction directly, but required that the others spend some hours a day teaching me my Latin and Greek, my mathematics, scraps of botany, and the science of music, which grew to be my first love.

The other men came and went. They did not live in the house, but came of an afternoon, or stayed there often for some weeks to perform their virtuosic experiments, and then leave. Most were philosophers, and inquired into the workings of time and memory, natural history, the properties of light, heat, and petrifaction. There were musicians among them as well, and painters and poets.

My mother, being of great beauty, was often painted. Once, she and I were clad as Venus, goddess of love, and her son Cupid, and we reclined in a bower. At other times, they made portraits of her dressed in the finest silks of the age, smiling behind a fan, or leaning on a pillar; and on another occasion, when she was sixteen, they drew her nude, for an engraving, with lines and letters that identified places upon her body.

The house was large and commodious, though often drafty. In its many rooms, the men read their odes, or played the violin, or performed their philosophical exercises. They combined chemical compounds and stirred them. They cut apart birds to trace the structure of the avian skeleton, and, masked in leather hoods, they dissected a skunk. They kept cages full of fireflies. They coaxed reptiles with mice. From the uppermost story of the house, they surveyed the city and the bay through spy-glasses, and noted the ships that arrived from far corners of the Empire, the direction of winds and the migration of clouds across the waters and, on its tawny isle, spotted with shadow, the Castle.

Amidst their many experimental chambers, there was one door that I was not allowed to pass. One of the painters sketched a little skull-and-crossbones on paper, endowed not with a skull, but with my face, my mouth open in a gasp; and this warning they hung upon that interdicted door as a reminder. They meant it doubtless as a jest, but to me, 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.

We did not venture much out of the house and its grounds into the city that surrounded us. In the garden, we could hear its bustle, the horseshoes on stone cobbles and dirt, the conversation of sailors, the crying of onions and oysters in passageways. The men of that house feared that too much interaction with the world would corrupt me, and so I was, in the main, hidden away for my earliest years, as the infant Jove, snatched out of the gullet of Time, was reared by his horned nurse on Mount Ida in profoundest secrecy.

When we did go abroad, Mr. 03-01 warned me that I should not lean out at the window of the carriage, and should not show my face. He told me that, should I ever run away into the city, I would not return, but would be snatched up by evil men who would take me forever away from my mother. This was, I know now, but a half-lie.

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