Review: Octavian Nothing

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

Octavian is a slave in pre-revolutionary Boston with a pretty cushy life.   His cage, such as it exits, is a velvet one.  He lives with his mother in a scientific commune where he is treated well and receives a classical education that is second to none.  If he realizes that he is the subject of scientific inquiry, it doesn’t seem strange since it’s the only life he’s ever known.  The men around him have genuine affection for both his mother and him, and their aim appears to be to prove that an educated African is no different than an educated European.  But his happiness relies on a shaky foundation and it doesn’t take much for it to collapse.  “Rational inquiry” isn’t without its horrors while the American’s war for freedom does not apply to everyone.

I was about halfway through this book before I decided that I liked it.  It’s a difficult book and its plot and ideas build slowly.  And then I was in love with it.  And then I got bored for awhile.  And then I liked it again.  It’s been a long time since I read a book about slavery, and this is a shocking and horrifying story, but it’s often told in such a clinical way that it doesn’t feel manipulative.  The readers eyes open to the situation as Octavian grows from a small boy to a young man, as his do.  But there is incredible subtlety and nuance to all of it, including the war.  I think its best hope for finding teen readers is as a school assignment, both because of the history and its amazing writing.


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