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

There's a song that Alistair Brown sings that always moves me. In Jamestown the ship's crew sing of “the wild delight of a sailor homeward bound” after being at sea for three years. They urge each other on, anticipating their welcome. But the line that makes me catch my breath is when they arrive and friends and family crowd around saying, “Welcome, Columbia's mariners, to your home and liberty.”

We're talking about a time long ago when the country was young and wooden ships sailed the oceans, so the equating of the United States with liberty has the naive freshness of the days when the country stood as a beacon of freedom. However, the simple pride I felt in my country as a child has long been undercut by the realisation that those same founding fathers who bewailed the tyranny of England were themselves slave owners. Liberty, of course, was only for white men.

This Young Adult book was first recommended to me by Lesley, a children's librarian. Since then, others have mentioned how good it is. I found it a little hard to get into, since the language is archaic and the opening situation unclear. For many chapters, I was uncertain of the time period, and whether I was reading a fantasy novel or a depiction of the real world. Even knowing as much as I do of the eighteenth century craze for natural science and the odd enclaves of amateur enthusiasts, I was confused. The explanation was a long time coming and only the short chapters and faith in Lesley's judgment kept me reading.

Set in Boston in the 1760s, Octavian lives with his mother in a house dedicated to the pursuit of science. The amateur philosopher-scientists of the Novanglian College, led by Mr. Gitney, pursue many odd experiments and also tutor Octavian who is treated like a little prince. After all, his mother was a princess in Africa. Dressed in silks and satins and petted by all, he is given a classical education and music lessons. It is some time before he realises that other little boys, whether prince or urchin, do not have to measure and weigh their excrement to compare intake and output. Eventually he becomes aware that he and his mother are themselves are not only slaves, but also the subjects of experiments to prove the inferiority of the African race.

Anderson says in the endnote that he wanted to write about this seminal period in history from the point of view of someone who doesn't know how it will turn out. I find that idea fascinating. Caught up in a moment of cultural change, as I remember quite well from 1968, you can sense possibilities opening up that you never dreamed of, even as you fear that what you're experiencing is just a momentary blip. How much more interesting, then, to look at this historic moment from the point of view of an outsider.

I'm surprised that the book is considered appropriate for teens and impressed that it is so popular. The language, which is similar to that of other eighteenth century novels, is difficult and unwelcoming. The vivid descriptions of abuses visited upon slaves cannot but horrify the reader. I knew that YA books had become much darker and more graphic that those of my day, but this is the stuff of nightmares. However, then I recalled that when I was eleven, I came across a book that consisted of news stories about lynchings, just one reprint after another. It was a thick book. Yes, I was horrified. Nightmares ensued. Yet with the devotion to fairness that the young possess, I became a foot soldier in the cause. It was very much due to this formative moment that I later broke with my parents over the civil rights movement.

If it takes this book a while to get going, it does eventually become absorbing, especially as the narrator grows older and understands better what is happening around him. It is a shocking book, but one that is ultimately satisfying. I will look for the next in the series and think of Octavian when I listen the sailors of the Jamestown extolling home and liberty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>