Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party

Author: M. T. Anderson
Originally Published: 2006
Length: 368 pages
Award: National Book Award for Young People, Printz Honor Book
Personal Enrichment Factor: 4.5/5
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5 (39 Customer Reviews)
Goodreads: 1,426 ratings, 3.90 average rating, 472 reviews

You need to have three things on hand for reading this book:
1. A punching bag
2. A dictionary
3. A box of tissue

Octavian is a black boy growing up in pre-revolutionary Boston, under the tutelage of an eccentric group of scientist/philosophers who form the College of Lucidity. He has been told by his mother that they are of royal lineage, and with childlike acceptance doesn't question the bizarre experiments and lessons he is the object of (like the weighing of his poop). Octavian learns that he is part of an experiment to determine "whether the capacities of the African are equal to those of the European." At first the terror of it sits just under the surface. Then, the College loses its funding when Octavian's mother (justifiably) insults their main benefactor, and the college is taken over by the sinister Mr. Sharpe, whose aim is to please a group of greedy southern contributors wanting proof (however skewed) that the African is inferior. There are a few characters involved in all of this that I became so angry with. I just wanted to strangle/maim/shoot/mangle them. Hence the need for a punching bag.

A dictionary on hand is also necessary. The book is written primarily from Octavian's point of view in 18th-century English, with many ancient classical allusions laced throughout. It comes across as slightly pretentious, but is true to his character, he having been given the finest education available. He not only has been taught the classics, but he reveres them. Something about the writing reminded me of Jane Eyre. Maybe the gothic feel of it, maybe the first person narrative--I can't really pinpoint why I got this impression.

There are some situations that would be major spoilers to mention, but I, sensitive soul that I am, saw fit to shed some tears and needed some tissue on hand. At one point, Octavian has an entire section scribbled out, and the emotional impact of it is pretty strong. Also some of the writing in this I found brilliant and moving. Bono, a servant in the household who Octavian looks to as an older brother says this about the attitudes of the white society:

They want us to be nothing but a bill of sale and a letter explaining where we is and instructions for where we go and what we do. They want us empty. They want us flat as paper. They want to be able to carry our souls in their hands, and read them out loud in court. All the time, they're on the exploration of themselves, going on the inner journey into their own breasts. But us, they want there to be nothing inside of. They want us to be writ on. They want us to be a surface. Look at me: I'm mahogany. (Page 136)

This is just one of many excellent passages, I'll let you discover them for yourself if you choose to read this. I was transfixed and had hard time putting it down. I've described my rating as an "enrichment" factor rather than "enjoyment" factor because it is not exactly pleasurable to read--it's dark and gritty and tragic, but definitely worthwhile and satisfying.

I found a couple of articles about M. T. Anderson worth reading:

Tomes for Teens (Washington Post)
Like his protagonists, he's a character study (Boston Globe)

My notes on the book can be found here at ChainNotes.

Prude-ometer (subjective content assessment): Mild language here and there, a reference or two of sex from Roman texts (you know how those Romans were), a couple of disturbing scenes of abuse. Classified as Young Adult, but as a parent I would consider individual maturity.


  1. Wow. I never heard of this book before. It sounds great.

  2. So is this the first in a series? Is that why it's volume 1?

    Both the description and that front cover is chilling.

  3. Jeane,
    I became aware of it through someone's blog, probably Becky's Book Reviews. It's a title that is hard to forget once you see it once!

    This is the first of two volumes. I have read the second one and will hopefully review it soon. It's quite different from this one, but equally dark and gritty.

  4. I have this on my MP3 player; now I'm thinking that it would be better in print. I'll have to see if the library has it on the shelves.

  5. WOW, this sounds really great! Thanks for the review- straight to the wish list it goes :-)

  6. I've been meaning to read this and even had it out from the library but returned it before reading it. Your review makes me want to run out and check it out again.

  7. this book is very confusing