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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
But Mr. Sharpe changes the experiment. Now the lessons seem more designed to prove failure rather than success. When not engaged in his âlessons," 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 âinoculatedâ against the small pox virus in hopes that they will be immune. Instead, Octavian witnesses pain and loss at the most personal level.
At this point the reader will identify with Octavian on a primal level, and feel enormous relief when, finally, Octavian makes his escape. We read about his life as a soldier in the Patriot's army through the letters of one of his co-patriots, one Private Evidence Goring. But it's not until his capture, and subsequent total isolation, that the reader truly understands the complete desolation and hopelessness in the life of a slave. When M.T. Anderson places the iron mask, which he so artfully described to the reader in an earlier chapter, on Octavian, the reader feels complete revulsion and aches for Octavian to be released from this abject misery.
The story is masterfully written and researched. It is one of the most difficult books I've ever read, both in vocabulary and realism. That I made it through to the end makes me feel smart, educated, humble, and indeed amazed, nay fortunate, to have been given a glimpse into the mind of a genius, M.T. Anderson. I'm quite confident that the readers' desire to find out the fate of Octavian Nothing will still pulse within by the time Mr. Anderson shares Volume II with the world.
I tried to finish the whole thing; I really did. I mean, it won a Printz Honor Award and is extraordinarily unique in its use of old-style language (think classics). But I just couldn't do it.
Octavian and his mother Cassiopeia are the only inhabitants at a scientific college who have real first names; everyone else is numbered by rank. Great philosophers document his every bowel movement, his thoughts, his education, and his successes on the violin. Reading a bit further, we find out that Octavian and Cassiopeia are black, and that Cassiopeia was an African princess sold into slavery. Still, Octavian's mother holds herself like a queen, and entertains all the scholars with her dazzling beauty and wit.
The young Octavian discovers one day that he is part of an experiment to prove that Africans could, with the proper education, be every bit as superior as the typical white prince. Octavian goes about his studies and life without question...until, some years after the college started, they run into financial troubles. Their new financial benefactor is Mr. Sharpe, a man from a group of Southern investors who is determined to prove that Africans are, in fact, incapable of being on par with whites.
Octavian's lifestyle changes drastically as he is demoted from the privileged "prince" of the house to a common servant, only with the additional burdens of having to read dull passages that make him lose his former interests in his studies and love of music. They want Octavian to fail, and so far he seems to be doing just that.
The novel's concept is very interesting, but many readers will undoubtedly find it hard to slog through Anderson's difficult vocabulary, a vocabulary that even many college students will have trouble understanding. However, it does give this book its own characteristic. I can only say that for those who are able to make it through this book, they should not be disappointed.