A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Despite the fact that I write (among other things) books for children, I hardly ever read youth literature. That’s not to say that the market isn’t brimming with talent and choice; but when I read for pleasure, my first instinct is to make a dent in the teetering tower of books at my bedside – novels, poetry, short story and essay collections, history and art books. I’m also of the opinion that writing for children isn’t really all that different from writing for grown-ups (and I suspect that M.T. Anderson might agree – though that’s a subject for another day!) Suffice it to say that apart from the occasional, unusual children’s picture book, which I collect, I hardly ever venture between the covers of novels for children and young adults.
But when a writer friend – none other than my fellow book-fox Ariadne – described The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party as original, daring, and quite unlike any children’s book she’d read before (“It makes comparable English children’s books seem awfully tame and polite,” she wrote. “Read it, even if just to get an idea of how different children’s writing can be”), I had to look it up.
Set outside Boston at the time of the Revolutionary War, Octavian’s tale addresses such subjects as slavery, patriotism, rationalism and the extent of human cruelty with unflinching courage and style. Raised by a group of rational philosophers, the son of an exiled African princess has never known life beyond the walls of the mysterious College of Lucidity (the fictitious institute was partly based on the American Philosophical Society; the author’s note mentions educational experiments conducted on Native American boys at Harvard University around the same time). Octavian and his mother are dressed in finest silks and tutored in the manners of the highborn. Fluent in Latin and Greek, a talented violinist and perspicacious logician, Octavian only begins to question his role at the centre of the College after discovering a secret room that points to a sinister explanation for the experiments to which he has been subjected since birth. In his own words, he describes a journey of discovery that is often shocking in its brutality.
Many reviewers have remarked on the distinctive style of the eighteenth-century prose, which can present challenges even for adult readers. That said, a few paragraphs were all it took for me to be completely enchanted by Octavian’s voice and immersed in his world. Early on, he tells the reader this:
It boots us nothing to feel rage for things that long ago transpired. We must curb our fury, and allow sadness to diminish, and speak our stories with coolness and deliberation. “Animum rege, qui nisi paret, imperat,” quoth the poet Horace. “Rule thy passion, for unless it obeys it, it rules you.” I ask the Lord God Jehovah for strength to forgive. Whatever I have felt about those men, I have much to thank them for. They lavished luxuries upon me. They supported my every interest and encouraged my curiosity. They instructed me in the Christian religion. They taught me the tongues of the Greeks and Romans and opened for me the colonnaded vistas of those long-forgotten empires, in this, the dawning of a new empire. They schooled me in music, which is my greatest delight. These are not little things.
I do not believe they ever meant unkindness.
Octavian’s initial blindness to the exploitative nature of his guardians’ attentions may seem pitiful, but his eventual awakening is the more poignant for it. No less touching is the secondary story of his friend, Bono – a servant in the household so named because the man who sold his mother worked her unborn child into the bargain; hence, Pro Bono. Just before he is to be gifted to another household, Bono introduces Octavian to his magic rock:
Bono pushed my head down towards a flat rock, on which the snow lay.
“You see that?” he said. “Commit it to memory. It’s a magic rock.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You pray to that rock sometime, and it give you what you wish for. You see it now?”
“Is this some frenzied retreat into your native animism?” I asked.
“God damn, I’ll retreat my boot up your arse. Do you see it?” He thrust my skull toward the stone.
“I see it.”
I could hear him close to tears. “There’s going to be some day when you need it, and you come out here, and you prey to it. And you hold it close to your belly. And it will give you everything you ask. Does His Highness understand?”
“Does His Highness remember?”
“His Highness does.”
“Does His Highness, King of Nowhere, Monarch of Nothing, Lord of the Shit-hill Isles – “
“Bono,” I said. “His Highness wishes to entertain a more decorous final image of you than being held over a rock and berated by some parcel of insanity.”
He let loose his grip on me.
“First week I was at the College,” he said, “They lit some kind of gas on fire. You recall that? Out in the orchard. You were little. A minikin.”
“I recall it,” I said.
“I thought they were gods. I thought, Now I’m walking in heaven, and it won’t ever matter what happens on Earth.”
Together, we looked at the apple-trees against the winter sky.
“Fine then,” he said. “I’m going to go in now to put a bow in my hair. As befits a gift.”
Perhaps the most shocking section of the book deals with the Pox Party, at which Octavian and his mother are compelled to attend as aides. Such parties were designed to inoculate participants to deadly diseases by boosting immunity to infection. As one might imagine, human collateral often ensued.
And then the poxy days began in earnest: men groaning on their beds for water; women groping their way along the corridors; a girl singing by the rented harpsichord until blood came from her nose and mouth; the linens I dragged down the steps, befouled with sickness; a child uncovering his back to display a mass of cheesy suppuration.
Needless to say, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is not an easy read – but it is hugely compelling, and an absolute must for able young readers interested in the dark days before racial categorization lost all credibility. The winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Young People and the 2007 Michael L. Printz Honor book for literary excellence in young adult literature will soon be followed by a second volume: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves will go on sale in October.
That’s one children’s book I’ll definitely be lining up to buy.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing; M.T. Anderson, Candlewick Press 2006 351 pp. ISBN 9-780763-624026