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

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Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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

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Product Details

Meet the Author

M. T. Anderson is the author of several books for children and young adults, including FEED, which was a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. M. T. Anderson lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

THE TRANSIT OF VENUS

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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 30 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 30 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 26, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by Cana Rensberger for TeensReadToo.com

    Even the title gives the reader a glimpse of the ostentatious nature of this incredible book. THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION is presented as a young adult title, which should in no way limit it only to the teen audience. Indeed, this book will be a challenge for many high school students -- a challenge well worth the effort.<BR/><BR/>M.T. Anderson immediately immerses his reader in the flowery, pretentious language spoken in the Revolutionary War period, a language that requires thought and concentration for today's reader. Once the reader is acclimated to the writing style, they are already hooked by Octavian's story. Octavian, an African prince, was sold while yet unborn, to one Mr. <BR/>Gitney, referred to as 03-01, of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. He was dressed in fine silks and fed the finest of fares. His mother was treated as the African princess she was, entertaining gentlemen, playing her harpsichord.<BR/><BR/>It was not until Octavian turned eight that he realized his life was not normal, that he was indeed one of the College's experiments. No other human being had their intake, as well as their body's waste, measured and recorded. Every word spoken, every situation, was a challenge to excel, an experiment to determine if the African race was capable of advanced thought and skill. Not all children, especially black children, were given the opportunity for a classical education. Octavian was already an accomplished violinist. He read all of the great literature, in several languages, including Greek and Latin. He understood figures, physics, and sciences of the earth. No discipline was left untouched in the quest to determine the potential of a slave to learn. <BR/><BR/>THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION is written from Octavian's point of view. Some passages are as though written by his own hand, then scribbled through, as if Octavian, with his vast education, still could not find the proper words to convey the horrors he had lived. His life of seeming luxury changes when the college's benefactor dies. Mr. Gitney entertains Lord Cheldethorpe in hopes that he will see fit to continue to finance the college as his uncle before him. For a time it seems that he is the solution to the College's financial distress. Especially since he has taken an acute interest in Octavian's mother. It is when she violently opposes his offer of her purchase, rather than a <BR/>royal marriage, that Octavian and his mother experience the outrage and beatings more typical in the life of a slave. To Octavian's great relief, Lord Cheldethorpe returns to England and a new financial supporter, Mr. Sharpe, is found.<BR/><BR/>But Mr. Sharpe changes the experiment. Now the lessons seem more designed to prove failure rather than success. When not engaged in his ¿lessons," Octavian is treated as a simple slave, along with his mother. Add to this the mounting unrest of the American nation, and fear is paramount. The entire household flees Boston to Canaan, Massachusetts. It is there that the most horrific experiment takes place. Mr. Gitney throws a pox party, whereby all, white and black alike, are ¿inoculated¿ against the small pox virus in hopes that they will be immune. Instead, Octavian witnesses pain and loss at the most personal level.....<BR/><BR/>Read the rest of this review at www.teensreadtoo.com

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    You Have to Read This Book!!!

    This book was recommeded to me. I normally don't read this genre of books. This book is based on fact as the author points out at the end of the book. Octavian speaks to you of his life, and the atrocities commited against him. This book is definitly not for young children. The issues raised in this book show the true horrors of slavery during the American Revolution and the shady experiments performed by early scientists. The details in this book will chill you and you won't be able to put this book down. This is the type of book that breaks the tradition of the teen books that raise inappropriate topics. This book is the best I have ever read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2013

    I am Isaiah and I recently finished reading the book the astonis

    I am Isaiah and I recently finished reading the book the astonishing life of Octavian nothing. This book is set in the early American revolution. I found this book to be very good despite the reviews that I read before actually ready it. This book makes you think about what could happen next again and again trying to figure out a secret that the philosophers are trying so hard to stop people from finding out. Later in the story  Octavian's awareness grows, his  surroundings are brokend by stirrings of revolution. When the college's most prestigious experiment goes horribly wrong, an increasingly melancholy Octavian must make his own way in a rapidly changing world. The first part of the book was good but the beginning was kind of slow and dry.
    When reading this book I have connected small parts of my life with this book because Octavian learned latin and greek like im currently doing in my high school. Really anybody can relate there life to this book because everyone one point in their life has been curious about something that they cant have or just want to know about. Octavians life confused me as his mothers a queen and they both live with philosopher’s who deside to teach Octavian the meanings of life and every subject that he can learn possible .
    Finally my last thought’s on this book is that anybody who is looking for something with a twist at every turn a great secret that you have to find out  when your done reading and the quality of a good book. But one might not catch the fact that there are to plots to this book and I have to say that I love it. The book allows the reader to ask different questons while reading the story. Some people won’t like it if there not into a fairy tale type of a story. I recommend this book for ages 14 and up anybody lower in age won’t really understand what the book has t offer.

    Isaiah Graham

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 24, 2012

    From what I have read so far, I have enjoyed The Astonishing Lif

    From what I have read so far, I have enjoyed The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. It is very interesting and I can't wait to read the second novel. The only problem is that the writing style might be hard for younger readers. I reccomend this book for high school students who are looking for a challenge.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2007

    A Pretty Good Book

    This book, set in the 1700's was a book about racial injustices. The Protagonist in this book was an African American boy who was brought up in an institute trying to prove whether or not a black man that was brought up in an educated way would be as productive as a white man. This boy was taught many things, including Latin and Greek. He was submitted to Smallpox. His life was an experiment, a joke, completely destroyed by a group of narrow minded scientists out to prove a point. If you enjoy stories where the protagonist is brought down by the system and in the end prevails over the system and learns from the experience, then you'll enjoy this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 1, 2012

    Surprising, intelligent, emotionally apt.

    Surprising, intelligent, emotionally apt.

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  • Posted June 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Indescribable

    Very very interesting book...the reading level was a little difficult for me but it was great. It was different and unexpected...a must read.

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  • Posted May 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Astonishing

    This book was intriguing to be sure, but not exactly entertaining. In order to be absorbed by this story, you have to be willing to invest the time, and be prepared with a dictionary, because, trust me, there are a lot of big words. The concept was certainly original, and is worth a try. When you've finished it, you put it down thinking you've accomplished something.

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  • Posted March 7, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Very descriptive, and in this case, details are better left in the dark.

    I had seen this book on the shelf many times before I ever even read the back, but when I did I was immediately intrigued. The way it was describing the novel led me to believe it was science fiction. Boy, was I off! What this book was really about was a boy and his mother who had been sold to a group of men who's mission in life was to collect and discover as much knowledge as they could. These men had made the boy into a walking, living, breathing, experiment. I think it takes place during the Renaissance, he and his mother are African American slaves and are treated like nobles until another group of scholars take their prejudice to a new level. I read this book with a little disgust, with the awards on the cover I thought I would be saved from lewd descriptions. Now I take the saying "never judge a book by it's cover" to heart. I don't mean to put it down or anything, but the emotion that lingered in me after I finished was not warm and fuzzy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Superb! A new light from the other side of the modern American history.

    Beautiful, sophisticated, honest, and complex, the "Octavian Nothing" series takes readers into a new perspective of the 18th century American history through an unusual but honest, intelligent narrative. A journey in which one witnesses the recent depravity of civilization that betrayed the humanity for a collected ignorance.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    An excellent story about a fascinating scientific program and the plight of slaves during the American Revolution

    I had no idea what this book was when I picked it up. When I started it and realized I was going to be reading yet another book about slavery, I felt just a little bit of a loss of enthusiasm. Then, I started to get pulled into the strange way of life in Octavian's home. I became fascinated with the "learned men" and with their treatment of Octavian and his mother. It was also interesting to read about slavery in Revolution time. It was a time when the slaves could look forward to freedom, not knowing about the ridiculous compromise the leaders of the young nation make. <BR/>Octavian's life is fascinating, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2008

    ¿This book brings slavery into whole new eyes¿

    Octavian, an adolescent African-American during the Revolutionary War, is raised as a prince in Boston. He is raised in a college that researches many fields of science. Octavian¿s mother lives there, along with many men who act like they love him. Soon, Octavian finds that he is an experiment to find out if African-Americans have the same brain capacity as whites. If Octavian becomes successful, it could lead to many people discussing if slavery is right. Soon, the college¿s funding gets cut and it goes to new management, Mr. Sharpe, the new head, shows Octavian his slavery status. Mr. Sharpe makes Octavian do menial tasks (instead of reading literature all day) and beats him. Octavian starts to wonder if he really belongs at the college. First, do not read this book if you do not have an advanced vocabulary. The characters in the book talk like rich men would in Revolutionary times. Other than the vocabulary issue that greatly shrinks the target group, the book excels in what it was meant to do relay the horrors of slavery. The descriptions this book gives will have your skin crawl and make you have much pity for Octavian. The only problem is, this book is boring, to put it bluntly. I didn¿t recognize the climax until I finished the book. That¿s not to say it is a bad thing this book was made to describe, not entertain. This book is the first in a scheduled two-part series. Its target group is young-adults to adults who read a lot. This book is definitely a must-read for those who want to know about slavery and are in the target group.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2008

    The Untold Story

    This story, untrue but based on events and people and places that were once hidden from the world because of the need to only hear what is good, entails the unheard story of a young boy named Octavian Gitney. Octavian is a slave of Mr. Gitney¿s during the American Revolutionary War and the events leading up to it. Mr. Gitney is the founder of the Novanglin College of Lucidity. This college inducts experiments and investigations to share with the world their outcomes. These experiments are sometimes harsh and cruel to the subjects whose investigation normally ends in death. Octavian, an African Prince, is the subject of a cruel experiment going on inside this college. His life is filled with much finery he has the best clothes, the best education, and the best food available to white males. As Octavian grows up he realizes that things aren¿t always what they seem. In this fictional tale, much like the real events like this that happened, this young man fights to be free from the cruelty that binds him to the college. I really enjoyed this book written by M.T. Anderson. Although this story has a slow story line, everything seems to fit in just the perfect place. This story isn¿t like many that bind you to its pages and is finished in a few hours. With this book the reader is likely to spend many days uncovering the secrets in this book¿s pages and understanding the deep and complex plot. Much hard thinking is necessary to understand the deep thought put into this story. The feelings and emotions of this story are buried deep in the writing and must be examined to correctly fit into the story. I didn¿t like parts of this book where you couldn¿t understand their deep thoughts or experiments because not enough information was given to the reader to make each complex thought and experiment clear. Also there were parts where one could tell this was written as if reading a diary and he didn¿t want you to know what he had really been feeling. These places caused confusion but also made one enter deep thought to try figuring out what had first been written there. In recommending this book, I would say that anyone reading lower than a high school level shouldn¿t even attempt to read this book. I believe people of either gender would like this book and feel drawn in. This book is part of a series this series contains two volumes, which should be read in order. Unlike any other book, this book is truly on of a kind but reminds me of the sad slave stories that one might read. I haven¿t managed to read the second volume yet but if it is anywhere as good as the first then this series is worth the time and effort to read and enjoy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2007

    Stunning!

    Absolutely beautiful. This book forces you to actually think about the times and opinions viewed. I am a high school student, but I have a reading level of that of a college sophmore. This book was the delightful light at the end of a dark tunnel full of teeny-bopper love stories and melodrama. Overall, great read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2007

    Brilliant, disturbing, but ultimately anti-climactic

    The first two-thirds of this book are magnificent. I would suggest not reading any plot-descriptive reviews, as they tend to give away crucial points to the story which are more fun and more disturbing to discover for yourself. This is definitely a book for teens, not younger children. The clinical means by which certain experiments are discussed might be too intense or frightening for say, my nine-year old nephew. Where the story falters is when Octavian ceases telling it. The illiterate soldier's letters to home are just too hard to read --filled with spelling and grammatical errors -- and ultimately, rather boring. We've grown used to Octavian's erudite voice, and the sudden distance between us seems empty and cold. Personally, I was more interested in the issue of 'what can be done in the name of science' than the slavery-related issues later raised. Overall, I look forward to the next chapter in Octavian's story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2007

    Reading in the sense of reading

    most books i read are just like a movie on paper. it doesn't require much thinking at all,it is just action packed and easy. If you want a challenge and something to just plain think about, read this book. This book is like reading in the sense of reading because it isn't exactly like a fast-pacced exciting story, but it is fun to sit there and think/decipher the meaning of what he's trying to say. Very deep and philisophical! (maybe a little wierd too):-)

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    Posted November 4, 2008

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    Posted January 14, 2009

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    Posted February 16, 2009

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    Posted February 17, 2009

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