The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation,
Volume I: The Pox Party
by M.T. Anderson
Paperback, 384 pages
Published January 22, 2008 by Candlewick Press
Source: Personal copy
This is a novel that took me completely by surprise. Assigned to me as the first reading for a course on Nationalism and Children’s Literature, M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing came with no prelude or disclaimer from my professor. I’m glad for that because it is precisely the shock of the subject matter (which is not made immediately apparent by the book’s summary) that makes its reveal so profound.
I mention this surprise (though it won’t be a shock if you’ve heard of this book even peripherally) only because to do a review of this book without discussing said subject matter would be nearly impossible and would not do the book justice. But more about that in a moment.
The novel opens in Boston during the first rumblings of the American Revolution where a young boy named Octavian is being raised in a mysterious citadel by a group of rationalist collegians and his beautiful mother. Octavian is given a Classical education in almost total isolation by the collegians who watch over him with a fanatical and clinical eye, monitoring his diet, weighing his bodily excretions, and giving him constant lessons in formal logic.
It is not until Octavian passes through the door of a forbidden room and finds race classification charts and engravings of his naked mother – a West African slave – that he becomes aware of the true (and twisted) nature of the experiment being conducted at the citadel: that Octavian is being given a Classical education only as a trial to see if members of his race can prove to be rational, enlightened beings.
This is when the reveal takes hold: this is a novel about slavery. The plot summary on the edition assigned to my classmates and I makes no note of this, and even Octavian’s race is obscured on the cover (his face is covered by a mask, unlike the second volume of the series which makes Octavian’s race explicitly clear:)
This initial ambiguity is effective on M.T. Anderson’s part, as the reader only understands the nature of the experiment when Octavian does. The reader shares in his creeping sense of unease and, ultimately, his surprise. Folded into this, of course, is the fact that the reader becomes aware of Octavian’s blackness only when he does, a reveal that beautifully disrupts the reader’s expectations of whom a historical novel set during the Revolution (or, indeed, any novel) is going to focus on. It is a fascinating moment in the narrative and serves as the catalyst that allows for the rest of Octavian’s story to unfold.
(It is also the moment I fell in love with the book because any narrative choice that lampshades the idea of white characters as the default is almost 100% guaranteed to win my affection.)
The novel is an ambitious one with Anderson not only doing a masterful job of blurring the line between fiction and reality, but subtly drawing parallels between the experiment being conducted at the citadel and the “experiment” of a fledging America at the moment of its independence. The book mercilessly shines light on the hypocrisy inherent in the tenants of liberty being espoused by the prejudiced collegians whose views, of course, echo those of liberal (and racist) Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Jefferson and David Hume.
[The collegians] told me of color, that it was an illusion of the eye, an event in the perceiver’s mind, not in the object; they told me that color had no reality; indeed, they told me that color did not inhere in a physical body any more than pain was in a needle.
And then they imprisoned me in darkness; and though there was no color there, I still was black, and they still were white; and for that, they bound and gagged me.
Terrifying, existentialist, and bitingly, unapologetically intelligent, the novel is one I would recommend to anyone interested in historical fiction, black history, or good reads that subvert your expectations at every turn. Also, to anyone who would like to see a little (or a lot) more acknowledgement of diversity when it comes to discussions of Western history and philosophy. It is a dark and emotionally taxing read, but a worthwhile one.