These two reviews first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson is as interesting for its history as it is for its story. First the story. Octavian, a slave in colonial Boston, is raised by the philosophers at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. He is given the best of everything, professorial tutors, musical training, the fancy clothing and excellent food. He is bright, curious, a gifted student who believes his future holds the world open for him. He sees himself as a young prince, and his mother as a queen in exile from her homeland.
What he does not know, is that his teachers are raising him as part of a scientific study to determine if Africans have the same capabilities Europeans have. At first, his teachers are sympathetic; they support him, have genuine feelings for him, truly want to know the full extent of his capabilities. He shows great progress in the study of Latin, for example, when he is allowed to translate the stories of Ovid and Virgil. However, when the College of Lucidity falls on hard times, new owners take over, owners who want the college to prove that Africans are not as capable as Europeans. Octavian’s Latin lessons are given over to a new tutor who presents him with dry essays that could not interest anyone and simply frustrate him, would do so even if he were not subjected to the harsh treatment and physical punishment his new masters deal out.
As the American Revolution approaches, the members of the college fear an outbreak of small pox and flee to the countryside where they hold a pox party. Honored guests are invited to stay on the estate for a few weeks and take an inoculation against small pox. The inoculations go terribly wrong, several people die as a result. At the same time Octavian faces the realization that he is now nothing more than a slave, the property of the college’s new owners, and that if he is ever to be free and to live the life he was previously raised to live, then he must run away.
This is how volume one ends. I read it when it was first published in 2006 and have been waiting for two years for the second part to come out. I’ve had it on reserve at my local bookstore, Bookshop Benecia, since last October, one of the rare occasion when I cannot wait for either the library or the softcover edition. I decided to re-read volume one first so it would be fresh in my mind which is why I am now posting this review. It’s a simply marvelous book. If you are not a reader of Young Adult fiction, just take the cover off and pretend it was written for grown-ups. You’ll find it very difficult to put down.
If you’re a lover of history, you’ll find many rewards in Octavian Nothing. This story covers much of American history that does not get discussed very often. The rather strange experiments of the College of Lucidity are varied and very unusual, but typical of the time. The pox party itself is very eye-opening. Did you know that small pox inoculations were the occasion for celebrations? There is a large party, on the wild side, and then everyone is inoculated. This is not for the faint of heart either. No hypodermic needle is used, the conditions are not sanitary, the dangers are great. Afterwards, everyone is confined to bed while they suffer a reduced version of the disease, while their slaves work through their own illness taking care of their masters. Unless things go wrong, as they do in Octavian Nothing.
This is the story of a slave so the issue of slavery takes center stage. That the story takes place during the time of the American Revolution, a revolution fought in the name of liberty, adds a layer of complexity that is seldom dealt with as honestly as it is here. There is not an ounce of the romantic in Mr. Anderson’s depiction of slavery. Even when the men at the college are vying for the attentions of Octavian’s beautiful mother in the early parts of the book it is made clear to the reader what is really going on, and exactly what was at stake for slave women of the time. Once things take a turn for the worse for the college, the full horror of American slavery is made clear. The mask pictured on the cover was a real device; made of iron with a bit that was forced into the wearer’s mouth. By the end of the first volume we begin to see that the American Revolution was a fight for freedom from the British but it was also, for some, a fight simply for freedom. The question American slaves had to ask themselves was not whose side were they on, but who was on their side.
I am, at present, about halfway through the second volume so I’ll save further comments for that review. I will say, that so far, it was well worth waiting for.
What do you think? What is the longest amount of time you’ve waited for a book to be published?
The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson continues the saga of Octavian Nothing, escaped slave and would-be-revolutionary. Octavian has fled his owners at the strange College of Lucidity and joined the rebels digging fortifications at Bunker Hill across the water from Boston. Unfortunately, he is still a slave, still property, and once this is discovered the rebels return him to the custody of his former owners. He escapes a second time with the help of his old tutor Dr. Trefusis and decides to try his luck within British occupied Boston. Once inside Boston he manages to find room and board and a job playing the violin for British soldiers. Eventually, as slaves have been promised freedom if they join the British army, he becomes a soldier and ends up in Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, stranded on ships outside Norfolk, the kingdom on the waves of the title.
Lord Dunmore commands a large fleet of ships full of soldiers and refugees unable to dock and take on supplies and unwilling to sail off towards battle or home. On a ship full of former slaves, Octavian is reunited with Pro Bono, his friend and sometimes antagonist from the College of Lucidity, and is able to continue his studies with Dr. Trefusis as well. He soon becomes acquainted with many other escaped slaves, some of them from Africa, who tell him about his African homeland and his ancestors. After a while, they form a close band of friends engaged in a common struggle for their own liberty. But the British and Lord Dunmore, seem unconcerned about them. They are only interested in using the former slaves as a tool to defeat the rebel colonists.
After a long time at sea, Octavian along with part of the Ethiopian Regiment is sent ashore to try and seize supplies. They enter a Norfolk set ablaze by the rebels and traverse a strange surrealistic countryside in a sequence straight out of Apocalypse Now. Their boat is captured by the rebels, so they are unable to get back to the ships. The African soldiers allow their British sergeant to present them as captured slaves in his custody to make it possible for them to travel northwards towards Boston. But this plan fails once the sergeant finds out he can turn in them in and collect a bounty. Octavian and his companions are left with no one to turn to, they are not safe with either side and there is no where they can run.
M.T. Anderson does not disappoint his readers in this second volume. The unusual and rich historical detail that made the first volume such interesting reading brings the second volume to life as well. The chaos of war, both in Boston under siege and Norfolk ablaze, keeps the reader turning the pages anxious to know what will happen next and not quite believing such things were possible. Lord Dunmore’s fleet, the kingdom on the sea, is a fascinating story in itself–hundreds of ships, just outside of cannon range but unable to resupply, full of refugees and escaped slaves, fighting off starvation and disease. That Lord Dunmore seems unable or unwilling to put his soldiers to work in an attempt to recapture Norfolk makes it clear why the British lost the revolution to the rebels. That the escaped slaves cannot find refuge anywhere in a land bent on gaining freedom makes it clear why the American Civil War happened four generations later.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing comes with my highest recommendation. Don’t be put of by the marketing. Presenting these two books as Young Adult novels likely a mistake in my view. I’ve yet to see one of my students reading either book. They deserve to be repackaged and presented to an adult readership. Both are excellent books.