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
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.
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 sourcesfrom 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)
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.
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)