Sunday, May 15, 2011
"What an incomprehensible machine is Man!" -- Jean Nicolas Demeunier
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Vol. I & II
by M.T. Anderson
National Book Award 2006 (Vol. I), Printz Honor Book 2007 (Vol. I), Prinz Honor Book 2009 (Vol. II)
When I first read Octavian Nothing last year after receiving the books for Christmas, both volumes quickly became two of my favourite works for young adults (surpassed only by the His Dark Materials trilogy). In my book club, volume one had been nominated twice, losing both times by only one vote, before finally winning after its third nomination. I had been wanting to re-read the books for some time now, but book club gave me an excuse to put aside new books in order to do so.
The premise of the novel concerns a young boy, called Octavian, who is being raised by the Novanglian College of Lucidity in Boston in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. His mother, Cassiopeia, claims to be a princess, and the boy is taught Greek, Latin, music, etc. as any child of the nobility might. Things are not as they seem, however, as Octavian and his mother are actually African slaves, and the boy is taught in the classical method as an experiment in which the collegians are attempting to determine if Africans are as mentally capable as their European counterparts.
After his mother rebuffs the sexual advances of a nobleman from whom the college hopes to receive investments, both she and Octavian lose many of their previous privileges, though Octavian's schooling does continue in part.
The latter half of the first volume and the entirety of the second detail Octavian's involvement in the Revolutionary War, first on the side of the rebels and later as a member of Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. While the beginnings of Mr. Anderson's work asks its audience to question the so-called benevolence of the College, this latter half is even more philosophical, asking what liberty is and whether it can truly be bestowed upon humanity so long as governments exists.
An epistolary novel, both volumes are mainly comprised of the diary entries of Octavian Nothing, as well as various letters, advertisements, and other documents that aid the telling of his tale. As such, Mr. Anderson does a truly brilliant job making his audience believe that this journal was written in the 1700's, using archaic spelling and grammar. While this might cause the work to be viewed as difficult to the average teenage reader, I think Mr. Anderson should be commended for his authenticity, as well as for his historical accuracy.
Although such dense language often causes characterization to become lost in the mire, there is no such problem here. The characters are quite vividly portrayed, well thought-out, and, often, sympathetic. The language is such that one can genuinely feel the characters' doubts and hopelessness, as well as their joys. And, given its epistolary nature, I think this is a great accomplishment.