Cover image for The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing : traitor to the nation
Title:
The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing : traitor to the nation
ISBN:
9780763624026
Edition:
1st ed.
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, c2006.
Physical Description:
351 p. ; 24 cm.
Reading Level:
1090 L Lexile
Summary:
Various diaries, letters, and other manuscripts chronicle the experiences of Octavian, a young African American, from birth to age sixteen, as he is brought up as part of a science experiment in the years leading up to and during the Revolutionary War.
Holds:

Available:*

Library
Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Copies
Status
Searching...
Book YA FICTION AND 1 1
Searching...
Searching...
Book TEEN FICTION AND 1 1
Searching...
Searching...
Book YA FICTION AND 1 1
Searching...
Searching...
Book YA FICTION AND 1 1
Searching...
Searching...
Book YA FICTION AND 0 1
Searching...

On Order

Summary

Summary

National Book Award Winner!
This deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.

It sounds like a fairy tale. He is a boy dressed in silks and white wigs and given the finest of classical educations. Raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers, the boy and his mother -- a princess in exile from a faraway land -- are the only persons in their household assigned names. As the boy's regal mother, Cassiopeia, entertains the house scholars with her beauty and wit, young Octavian begins to question the purpose behind his guardians' fanatical studies. Only after he dares to open a forbidden door does he learn the hideous nature of their experiments -- and his own chilling role in them. Set against the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston, M. T. Anderson's extraordinary novel takes place at a time when American Patriots rioted and battled to win liberty while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim. The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.


Author Notes

M. T. Anderson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 4, 1968. He was educated in English literature at Harvard University and Cambridge University, and received his MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. He primarily writes picture books for children and novels for young adults. His picture books include Handel, Who Knew What He Liked; Strange Mr. Satie; The Serpent Came to Gloucester; and Me, All Alone, at the End of the World. His young adult books include Thirsty, Burger Wuss, and Feed, which won the L.A. Times Book Award for YA fiction in 2003. He also writes the series A Pals in Peril Tale, and The Norumbegan Quartet.

Anderson Won the 2006 National Book Award in Young People's Literature for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party.

His title Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, was a finalist for the 2016 YALSA-ALA Award for Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Anderson (Whales on Stilts) once again shows the breadth of his talents with this stunningly well-researched novel (the first of two planned) centering on 16-year-old Octavian. The author does not reveal the boy's identity right away, so by the time readers learn that he is the son of an African princess, living a life of relative privilege and intense scrutiny among a group of rational philosophers in pre-Revolutionary War Boston, they can accept his achievements extraordinary for any teen, but especially for an African-American living at that time. These men teach him the violin, Latin and Greek. Anderson also reveals their strange quirks: the men go by numbers rather than names, and they weigh the food Octavian ingests, as well as his excrement. "It is ever the lot of children to accept their circumstances as universal, and their particularities as general," Octavian states by way of explanation. One day, at age eight, when he ventures into an off-limits room, Octavian learns he is the subject of his teachers' "zoological" study of Africans. Shortly thereafter, the philosophers' key benefactor drops out and new sponsors, led by Mr. Sharpe, follow a different agenda: they want to use Octavian to prove the inferiority of the African race. Mr. Sharpe also instigates the "Pox Party" of the title, during which the guests are inoculated with the smallpox virus, with disastrous results. Here the story, which had been told largely through Octavian's first-person narrative, advances through the letters of a Patriot volunteer, sending news to his sister of battle preparations against the British and about the talented African musician who's joined their company. As in Feed, Anderson pays careful attention to language, but teens may not find this work, written in 18th-century prose, quite as accessible. The construction of Octavian's story is also complex, but the message is straightforward, as Anderson clearly delineates the hypocrisy of the Patriots, who chafe at their own subjugation by British overlords but overlook the enslavement of people like Octavian. Ages 14-up. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Horn Book Review

(High School) As Enlightenment yields to Industrialism, the United States is born, and Anderson savages its hypocrisy as only he can. At the Novanglian College of Lucidity in Boston, young Octavian has been given the finest possible Classical education -- but he's also a laboratory experiment, his food weighed at each meal; his feces, at each elimination. In a precise eighteenth-century voice Octavian narrates the details of life at the College: the sadism and the indulgence of its fellows, the distant love of his mother (a former African princess), and his growing friendship with the slave Pro Bono, who schools fellow slave Octavian in the reality that exists in the world beyond the surreality of the College. As the Patriots prepare to square off against the Redcoats, the College throws a ""pox party"" -- a bizarrely festive group inoculation against the smallpox -- and when his mother dies of it, the grief-stricken Octavian escapes, a fugitive in a landscape seething with combatants in the struggle for liberty. When Octavian's voice falls silent after his mother's death, it is replaced by documents that continue the account, from the College's cold-blooded report of his mother's body's dissection to the letters of a sympathetic Patriot foot soldier. Like Feed (rev. 9/02), this is a brilliantly complex interrogation of our basic American assumptions. Anderson has created an alternative narrative of our national mythology, one that fascinates, appalls, condemns -- and enthralls. (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

M. T. Anderson's books for young people reflect a remarkably broad mastery of genres, even as they defy neat classification. Any labeling requires lots of hyphens: space-travel satire ( Feed, 2002), retro-comic fantasy-adventure ( Whales on Stilts, 2005). This genre-labeling game seems particularly pointless with Anderson's latest novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (2006), an episodic, highly ambitious story, deeply rooted in eighteenth-century literary traditions, which examines, among many other things, pre-Revolutionary slavery in New England. The plot focuses on Octavian, a young black boy who recounts his youth in a Boston household of scientists and philosophers (The Novanglian College of Lucidity). The Collegians believe so thoroughly in the Age of Reason's principles that they address one another as numbers. Octavian soon learns that he and his mother are objects of one of the Collegians' experiments to learn whether Africans are a separate and distinct species. Octavian receives an education equal to any of the princes in Europe, until financial strains shatter Octavian's sheltered life of intellectual pursuits and the illusion that he is a free member of a utopian society. As political unrest in the colonies grows, Octavian experiences the increasing horrors of what it means to be a slave. The story's scope is immense, in both its technical challenges and underlying intellectual and moral questions--perhaps too immense to be contained in a traditional narrative (and, indeed, Anderson has already promised a second volume to continue the story). As in Meg Rosoff's Printz Award Book How I Live Now (2004), in which a large black circle replaces text to represent the indescribable, Anderson's novel substitutes visuals for words. Several pages show furious black quill-pen cross-hatchings, through which only a few words are visible, perhaps indicating that even with his scholarly vocabulary, Octavian can't find words to describe the vast evil that he has witnessed. Likewise, Anderson employs multiple viewpoints and formats--letters, newspaper clippings, scientific papers--pick up the story that Octavian is periodically unable to tell. Once acclimated to the novel's style, readers will marvel at Anderson's ability to maintain this high-wire act of elegant, archaic language and shifting voices, and they will appreciate the satiric scenes that gleefully lampoon the Collegians' more buffoonish experiments. Anderson's impressive historical research fixes the imagined College firmly within the facts of our country's own troubled history. The fluctuations between satire and somber realism, gothic fantasy and factual history will jar and disturb readers, creating a mood that echoes Octavian's unsettled time as well as our own. Anderson's book is both chaotic and highly accomplished, and, like Aidan Chambers' recent This Is All (2006), it demands rereading. Teens need not understand all the historical and literary allusions to connect with Octavian's torment or to debate the novel's questions, present in our country's founding documents, which move into today's urgent arguments about intellectual life; individual action; the influence of power and money, racism and privilege; and what patriotism, freedom, and citizenship mean. --Gillian Engberg Copyright 2006 Booklist


School Library Journal Review

Gr 9 Up-In this fascinating and eye-opening Revolution-era novel, Octavian, a black youth raised in a Boston household of radical philosophers, is given an excellent classical education. He and his mother, an African princess, are kept isolated on the estate, and only as he grows older does he realize that while he is well dressed and well fed, he is indeed a captive being used by his guardians as part of an experiment to determine the intellectual acuity of Africans. As the fortunes of the Novanglian College of Lucidity change, so do the nature and conduct of their experiments. The boy's guardians host a "pox party" where everyone is inoculated with the disease in hopes that they will then be immune to its effects, but, instead, Octavian's mother dies. He runs away and ends up playing the fiddle and joining in the Patriots' cause. He's eventually captured and brought back to his household where he's bound and forced to wear an iron mask until one of his more sympathetic instructors engineers his escape. Readers will have to wait for the second volume to find out the protagonist's fate. The novel is written in 18th-century language from Octavian's point of view and in letters written by a soldier who befriends him. Despite the challenging style, this powerful novel will resonate with contemporary readers. The issues of slavery and human rights, racism, free will, the causes of war, and one person's struggle to define himself are just as relevant today. Anderson's use of factual information to convey the time and place is powerfully done.-Sharon Rawlins, NJ Library for the Blind and Handicapped, Trenton (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Guardian Review

Octavian is a rare small beast. Arriving in Boston from Africa in his mother's womb, he has been taken up by a group of scientifically minded gentleman who use him as a lab rat. On fire with the ideas of the late Enlightenment, these stalwarts of the College of Lucidity set about investigating whether Homo Afri is as capable as any white man of learning Latin, mastering Euclid and fiddling the old European masters. For a while the answer is a resounding yes. Octavian is a perfect little prodigy of polite learning. In fact he is a bit of a prig. Dressed in rich silks that make him look like a tiny bird of paradise, he knows his Tacitus, not to mention his Handel. He can tell you precisely when Venus will transit the Sun. And yet there is a dark undertow to all this hot-housing. Every time Octavian uses the chamber pot, the contents are weighed and recorded in a large book. For despite all his privilege, he remains an experiment, a thing, a chattel to be bought and sold by his white masters. This precarious status becomes even more pronounced once changes in the body politic start to impact on the fetid world of the College of Lucidity (one of its last gasps has been to throw a "pox party" in which the new science of inoculation is put to the test). Rumours abound all over New England that African slaves are beginning to rise in revolt against their owners. British redcoats are stirring things even further, telling bonded workers that their best chance of freedom lies, paradoxically, in siding with their colonial masters. Traumatised by the death of his mother at the pox party - the only African to succumb - Octavian makes a dash for freedom. Working as a farmhand, pub musician and foot soldier in the Patriot army, he eventually sees action at Bunker Hill before being bundled back to his owners in chains and with a vicious bit between his teeth. The book ends with Octavian's escape, thanks to a big dose of opiates in the tea of the self-proclaimed "Sons of Liberty" who preside over the diabolical college. Most of this story is told by Octavian himself, and one of the wonders of the book is MT Anderson's ability to ventriloquise the voice of an educated African slave. Octavian doesn't simply sound like the 18th century, he somehow becomes it, embodying a sensibility that you would think impossible to fake. The result, inevitably, is not always easy reading. The language is antique, the psychology alien. Despite being marketed as a book for teenagers, Anderson makes no easy concessions to contemporary concerns. With his rational emotions and formal language, Octavian remains an 18th- century curiosity rather than a poster child for racial integration in high-school America. And yet anyone prepared to keep faith with the demands that Anderson makes of his readers is due a huge reward. The language may be chilly but it has a swell of elegance that carries you along like a clipper. The "Sons of Liberty" may be heinous, but in their bungled experiments you begin to see the internal contradictions inherent in the whole Enlightenment project. Octavian himself may be an odd fish, but his reasoned request for liberty stays with you longer than any amount of hot-teared playing to the gallery. This is a book which arrives from America groaning with rewards and reputation. It deserves to do just as well here. Kathryn Hughes's biography of Mrs Beeton is published by Harper Perennial. To order The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing for pounds 11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop Caption: article-octavian.1 Most of this story is told by Octavian himself, and one of the wonders of the book is MT Anderson's ability to ventriloquise the voice of an educated African slave. Octavian doesn't simply sound like the 18th century, he somehow becomes it, embodying a sensibility that you would think impossible to fake. The result, inevitably, is not always easy reading. The language is antique, the psychology alien. Despite being marketed as a book for teenagers, Anderson makes no easy concessions to contemporary concerns. With his rational emotions and formal language, Octavian remains an 18th- century curiosity rather than a poster child for racial integration in high-school America. - Kathryn Hughes.


Kirkus Review

A historical novel of prodigious scope, power and insight, set against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War. Readers are seduced by a gothic introduction to the child Octavian, whose bizarre situation is both lavish and eerie. Octavian is domiciled with a gentleman scholar at the "College of Lucidity." A sentient being, he is a living experiment, from his classical education to the notated measurement of his bodily intake and output; as such, the study will degenerate from earnest scholarly investigation to calculated sociopolitical propaganda. Upon learning that he's a slave, Octavian resolves to prove his excellence. But events force the destitute College to depend on a new benefactor who demands research that proves the inferiority of the black race. Like many Africans, Octavian runs away, joining the Revolutionary army, which fights for "liberty," while ironically never assuring slaves freedom. Written in a richly faithful 18th-century style, the revelations of Octavian's increasingly degraded circumstances slowly, horrifyingly unfold to the reader as they do to Octavian. The cover's gruesomely masked Octavian epitomizes a nation choking on its own hypocrisy. This is the Revolutionary War seen at its intersection with slavery through a disturbingly original lens. (Historical fiction. YA-adult) Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Excerpts

Excerpts

CHAPTER ONE THE TRANSIT OF VENUS I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spirit-ous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door to the ice-chamber. By the well, servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frock-coats of asbestos. Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand. How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing. The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twitching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts. I did not find it strange that I was raised with no one father, nor did I marvel at the singularity of any other article in my upbringing. It is ever the lot of children to accept their circumstances as universal, and their articularities as general. So I did not ask why I was raised in a house by many men, none of whom claimed blood relation to me. I thought not to inquire why my mother stayed in this house, or why we alone were given names - mine, Octavian; hers, Cassiopeia - when all the others in the house were designated by number. The owner of the house, Mr. Gitney, or as he styled himself, 03-01, had a large head and little hair and a dollop of a nose. He rarely dressed if he did not have to go out, but shuffled most of the time through his mansion in a banyan-robe and undress cap, shaking out his hands as if he'd washed them newly. He did not see to my instruction directly, but required that the others spend some hours a day teaching me my Latin and Greek, my mathematics, scraps of botany, and the science of music, which grew to be my first love. The other men came and went. They did not live in the house, but came of an afternoon, or stayed there often for some weeks to perform their virtuosic experiments, and then leave. Most were philosophers, and inquired into the workings of time and memory, natural history, the properties of light, heat, and petrifaction. There were musicians among them as well, and painters and poets. My mother, being of great beauty, was often painted. Once, she and I were clad as Venus, goddess of love, and her son Cupid, and we reclined in a bower. At other times, they made portraits of her dressed in the finest silks of the age, smiling behind a fan, or leaning on a pillar; and on another occasion, when she was sixteen, they drew her nude, for an engraving, with lines and letters that identified places upon her body. The house was large and commodious, though often drafty. In its many rooms, the men read their odes, or played the violin, or performed their philosophical exercises. They combined chemical compounds and stirred them. They cut apart birds to trace the structure of the avian skeleton, and, masked in leather hoods, they dissected a skunk. They kept cages full of fireflies. They coaxed reptiles with mice. From the uppermost story of the house, they surveyed the city and the bay through spy-glasses, and noted the ships that arrived from far corners of the Empire, the direction of winds and the migration of clouds across the waters and, on its tawny isle, spotted with shadow, the Castle. Amidst their many experimental chambers, there was one door that I was not allowed to pass. One of the painters sketched a little skull-and-crossbones on paper, endowed not with a skull, but with my face, my mouth open in a gasp; and this warning they hung upon that interdicted door as a reminder. They meant it doubtless as a jest, but to me, the door was terrible, as ghastly in its secrets as legendary Bluebeard's door, behind which his dead, white wives sat at table, streaked with blood from their slit throats. We did not venture much out of the house and its grounds into the city that surrounded us. In the garden, we could hear its bustle, the horseshoes on stone cobbles and dirt, the conversation of sailors, the crying of onions and oysters in passageways. The men of that house feared that too much interaction with the world would corrupt me, and so I was, in the main, hidden away for my earliest years, as the infant Jove, snatched out of the gullet of Time, was reared by his horned nurse on Mount Ida in profoundest secrecy. When we did go abroad, Mr. 03-01 warned me that I should not lean out at the window of the carriage, and should not show my face. He told me that, should I ever run away into the city, I would not return, but would be snatched up by evil men who would take me forever away from my mother. This was, I know now, but a half-lie. _______ Excerpted from The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M. T. Anderson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.