Vulpes Libris

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.

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

I must begin with a confession.

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?”

“I 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


About Trilby

Born in Toronto but grew up all over the map thanks to her peripatetic journalist parents. After completing degrees from Oxford and the LSE, she spent a year working at a London auction house - but soon gave it up to become a writer. Her first novel - for children 9-14 - will appear in 2009 (Tundra Books). Meanwhile, a "grown-up" novel, set in Ceylon and Flanders in the 1930s, is in the works. Almost a year since receiving a 1910 Sigwalt letterpress, she has yet to decide where the gauge pins go.

13 comments on “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I, The Pox Party, by M.T. Anderson

  1. RosyB
    July 12, 2008

    I was thinking this book looked very interesting when I was looking it up for the “What’s Coming Up on Vulpes” list. But it was also hard to get a straightforward blurb for it anywhere so I wonder if you can clear this up for me. You say:

    “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).”

    You say some of the institutions etc are fictitious – how far would you say this is a historical novel and how far a work of imagination based on historical themes?

    Can you illuminate slightly why it is called Traitor to the Nation – or would that give too much away?

  2. Trilby
    July 12, 2008

    Hi Rosy

    I’d say that this is less a book of historical characters than of historical concepts; the College of Lucidity is fictitious, but the theories developed and experiments conducted there are very closely based on the prevalent “scientific” ideas of the day. The men responsible for Octavian’s upbringing could be described as social Darwinists a century ahead of their time.

    As far as I know, none of the characters themselves are “real” – this isn’t the kind of book where Paul Revere rides in to save the day. That said, social experiments conducted throughout and beyond the Enlightenment did indeed take advantage of vulnerable subjects; in that sense, Octavian is an artistic representation of such exploitation. And the overarching context of the Revolutionary War renders this a book not just about one boy’s journey, but the ideological formation of an entire nation. I can’t help thinking of magic realism, which *plays* with reality rather than simply reverting to fantasy; this is, perhaps, a historical equivalent…

    (As for “Traitor to the Nation”…I suspect that this part of the title will become clearer in subsequent volumes!)

  3. rosyb
    July 12, 2008

    Thanks for answering, Trilby. I’m beginning to see why – maybe- I found a simple-to-understand blurb so difficult to come across. It sounds very complex. I am envisioning a could-have-been reality in our world, rather than either a possible historical reality or a parallel world/fantasy world scenario.

    It sounds intriguing anyway and doesn’t sound like any other books – what would you say it’s closest relatives might be? I may have to take a squint at it in the bookshop.

  4. Trilby
    July 12, 2008

    In all honesty, Rosy, it’s hard to think of close relatives to something as original as this! I recall reading a book titled “My Brother Sam Is Dead” (set during the Revolutionary War) when I was at school in Boston; the language was not as complex, but it also captured the essence of what it was to be there at the birth of a nation – it also dealt with “big” issues, as ON does.

    As it happens, I was in a book shop today and came across a YA novel called “Fever 1793” by Laurie Halse Anderson. Again, the voice is quite different, but the feel for the period seemed comparable to ON.

    I’d really say you’ve got to read this one for yourself to see!

  5. Jackie
    July 13, 2008

    I agree that adult and childrens’ books ought to be written with little difference, but this would be an intense read even for grown-ups. The cover, too has a strong impact, at once forbidding and mysterious. I like how the language has an old-fashioned feel, but I didn’t find it difficult to reads in the excerpts. This would seem to be a good book for any young person looking for something more serious and thought provoking.

  6. Moira
    July 13, 2008

    ‘Astonishing’ is plainly the right word … Trilby … Terrific review. You were obviously bowled over by it, which is good enough for me. You’ve sold me on this one.

    Heaven help my ‘to read’ pile …

  7. Lisa
    July 17, 2008

    I was blown away by this review, Trilby, and have since looked up other reviews of M.T Anderson’s work. He seems to be totally unique. Some readers say that each of his books could have been written by a different author. Fascinating writer who obviously takes big risks that have paid off.

  8. Trilby
    July 17, 2008

    Absolutely. The risks are inspired, and inspiring!

  9. Sara
    July 26, 2008

    I just bought the book today and im up to page 50 something. but i agree it is quite a challenging read. I’m only 13, I understand it but its definitely a difficlult read. Its the most well-written book i have ever read, and the use of vocabulary is different to most books that you find now a days.

    I have reached the bit where Octavian starts to realise that there is something starnge about his life, and wants to know why, why, why. So he opens the forbidden door and sees the picture of his naked mother. Then he gets caught, but none of his questions are properly answered by 0301.

    I was just wondering, does it get more difficult to understand after this part? So far i have understood ptty much all of it.

    thanks,
    Sara.

  10. Trilby
    July 30, 2008

    Thanks for commenting, Sara. I think that if you’ve made it this far, you’re unlikely to find the rest of the book too difficult. Towards the end the narrative takes the form of letters written by a soldier (I won’t ruin it by saying any more!), but although the new point of view takes some getting used to, the language is no more archaic than Octavian’s.

    Do let us know what you think when you’ve finished!

    Trilby

  11. Esai
    March 12, 2009

    what factual things or people are based on this book

  12. Pingback: M. T. Anderson – The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party « Fyrefly’s Book Blog

  13. Pingback: Where Are They Now? « Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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