The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation – Vol. 1: The Pox Party

cover image for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox PartyAnderson, M.T. (2006) The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation – Vol. 1: The Pox Party. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press

Plot Summary:

Octavian Nothing lives with his mother in Boston in a house full of philosophers and scientists.  As part of his experiments in Natural Philosophy, the head of the household, Mr. Gitney, is attempting to see if the Africans are indeed an inferior race – and Octavian is his main subject of study.  It’s a strange and uncertain life, but unlike most other black children his age he is encouraged to focus on learning his letters and music and art – all the things young gentleman are taught.  Until Mr. Gitney’s English benefactor dies and the relative who inherits his wealth turns out to have ties to influential slave owners in the colonies.  Soon, what little dignity and warmth was offered to Octavian is stripped away and he is left with nothing but the knowledge he has gained.

Critical Evaluation:

This first volume of Octavian’s story is a dense and complicated read; Anderson went to great lengths to research and recreate the language of the time and it shows, the insights into colonial life and politics are fascinating and memorable.  While many have argued that this – and the complicated plot – makes it  inaccessible to teens I disagree.  It’s no less accessible than Huckleberry Finn and easily presents a more complex view of our nation’s history of racism – and black teen’s experiences in the US – than that particular classic, as deservedly beloved and praised as it is.  Anderson refuses to pull any punches and goes to great lengths to show how ego and arrogance consistently corrupt otherwise good intentions.  It’s a thought provoking read that greatly deserves the awards and praise it has been given.

Reader’s Annotation:

At a time when most of the other black children his age are treated like livestock, Octavian Nothing has been raised as the son of a gentleman would – but when he learns the truth as to why, it tears his world apart.

Author Information:

http://www.mt-anderson.com/

@Manderson_Rules

Genre:

Historical Fiction

Booktalking Ideas:

The hardest part about convincing kids to read this is to convince them that the effort is worth it.  I would focus on painting a dramatic overall picture of his life before all the changes start happening to help get them invested in him as a character as well as ease them into the language throughout the talk.

Reading Level/Target Age:

9th grade/ 14-19

Potential Controversy:

Like real life – and history – this is a very messy book at times, so to speak, and could definitely offend anyone who was expecting a more sanitized look at that period in time.  Worse yet, it suggests that the US and it’s citizens have not always been on the correct side of history.  It will get challenged, although it remains relatively obscure enough for challenging it to not be overly popular.

Reasons for Choosing This Book:

I thought it sounded like it would be very different from the normal fare – and I was not disappointed.

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