Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

As I've mentioned before, I try to avoid reading the blurbs on the backs of books so over the last year and people have raved about The Pox Party, I've stopped listening there because I hate it when the plot of a very good book is spoiled. I know I'm a little behind in picking the book up, but wow, the wait was worth it and I was surprised by the plot in ways I wouldn't have been had I read a single review (which means maybe you want to stop reading this review now and just trust me and pick up the book).

M.T. Anderson's books seem to be all over the place, realistic fiction, vampire novels, kooky humor for younger readers so you never know what to expect. I haven't hated any of his books, but before Octavian I hadn't cherished any of them either.

I never spent a lot of time inspecting the cover of The Pox Party. It looked kind of like the man in the iron mask so I expected something set in the colonies that was dashing and daring with a bit of romance splashed in between. I am an idiot. I had no idea how deep and moving this book would be and I had no idea how much it would mean to me.

Ok, let's start at the beginning. Here's the summary from the publisher:

He is a boy dressed in silks and white wigs and given the best of classical educations. Raised by a mysterious group of rational philosophers known only by numbers, the boy and his mother–a princess in exile from a faraway land–are the only people in their household assigned names. As the boy’s regal mother, Cassiopeia, entertains the house scholars with her beauty and wit, young Octavian begins to question the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. Only after he dares to open a forbidden door does he learn the hideous nature of their experiments–and his own chilling role in them.


Now, even if I had read that description along with seeing the cover I can see how I would have missed a major part of the plot, but if I had read a single review I would have picked up that Octavian is black. His mother was an African Princess sold to the philosophers while pregnant and Octavian's upbringing, with the best possible education, is actually an experiment meant to settle arguments as to whether or not black people have the same intellectual capacity as white. The vague summary from the publisher and the omission of Octavian's face of the cover of the book were obviously intentional so the reader would be just as surprised as Octavian at his discovery.

Everything goes awry when Octavian learns that he is actually a slave being experimented on and shortly after the Philosophers lose their main benefactor and find new investors, who happened to depend on slavery as part of their commerce and are bent on proving that Octavian is indeed of a inferior race.

This is a revolutionary war story like you've never read before, but should have. In the history classes of my youth, why didn't we discuss the hypocrisy of the patriots fighting for freedom from the British while justifying slavery in their own homes? I never knew that the patriots feared the British would move their own slaves to an uprising and took precautionary measures.

As you'd expect with any realistic portrayal of slavery, heartbreak and horrific treatment abound and there are some graphic and disturbing scenes. Add to that the complex scientific terms and eighteenth-century prose, and I'd say this book should definitely be put in the hands of mature young adults. In fact, I'm not sure why this is considered a young adult book at all. Yes, it belongs in classrooms right along with To Kill A Mockingbird, but many an adult would be challenged by it. It also had a very slow start many readers will struggle through. I must admit, before I really knew what it was about, I almost put it down, but I was so caught up in the end the complex language and format didn't even phase me. I'm ready and waiting for the October 18th release of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves


Anonymous said...

I enjoy seeing what books you have selected to read. I am wondering how you choose which ones. Do you pull them off a best seller list or are they recommended to you by others? I am looking for something to read.

ebin_5446 said...

I also read this book without really knowing anything about it first. I loved Feed, Whales on Stilts (& its sequel), and The Game of Sunken Places, so I was excited to find something else by M.T. Anderson. Octavian was absolutely nothing like anything else of his I have read, which I think is amazing, since many authors tend to write in one particular style/genre.

Jill Fales said...

I just stumbled across the blog here and have really enjoyed it.
Thank you!