History is chilling in Octavian Nothing…The Pox Party

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson; published by Candlewick Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006; 351 pages.

Octavian Nothing measures all he consumes and weighs all that comes out (yes, feces).  He is classically trained but he is not a gentleman.  His mother, Casseopeia, is a princess far from home, thus Octavian is a prince; but he is treated as an animal in a zoo.  The men studying him are scholars and philosophers in Colonial America.  As the patriots begin to revolt against British tyrranny, so Octavian struggles to gain his freedom.  Octavian is the son of an African slave and is therefore a slave himself.  For all his classical training, he is not free.  In this, the first book in the fight for freedom of a young man, we grow in age and self-awareness stride for stride with Octavian Nothing.

This publication is intended to appear as an old text as illustrated by the untrimmed pages as well as the layout of the title page.  In this manner, we are introduced to this “history” as if it were an old, authoritative text.  Anderson even wrote in the style of the era, which took some getting used to.  This is not a quick and easy read.  While historical fiction is almost always a hard-sell to young adults, this one is made more difficult to peddle because of the writing style.  The first two sections of the book are told mainly from Octavian’s accounts, with some information provided by the philosophers who are teaching him.  Part three is told through letters and advertisements; the writing styles of the various correspondents varies greatly and makes reading this section slow and plodding.  By the last part of the book, I was relieved to be reading in Octavian’s style and found myself rushing headlong to the conclusion, which was quite satisfying (although it’s a cliff-hanger).  By varying the sources of information, Anderson has created an account that at once feels authentic and authoritative.  Perspective on the American Revolution, as well as the course of slavery, is provided from several angles: the slave, the master, the erudite philosophers, and the common-sense faithfulness of Private Goring (cooper and soldier).  In summary, the book read like a text which a student is using for research.

That being said, I have to say this is a hard book to review.  I can’t say I enjoyed reading it; the subject matter wasn’t the problem, I understand the horrors and inhumanity of slavery; but the author did nothing to convince me that there was humnanity beyond the horrors inflicted by learned men.  The peripheral characters, in the end, were archetypal and flat, while Octavian was subtly fleshed out.  I typically love historical fiction.  Yes, it was a more thoughtful read than many I have read recently.  Even though I took my time and tried to let the story run its course, I was not moved by it.   So I guess the lack of character development in an epic novel left me “cold” while the atrocities against humanity were “chilling.”

Will teens pick this up?  I doubt it, at least not without a purpose to their reading (perhaps a summer reading assignment or as extra-credit for social studies).  However, I would be sure to keep the book in their line of vision, create a buzz about it, because the style should be tried on and the subject matter must be considered by the next generation.  I believe these are the reasons that the book was selected for the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book and was the 2006 National Book Award winner for Young Adult Fiction.

2P     4Q (for creating a modern novel with an authentic historic style; not for character development)     Grade Level: 10-adult

POx PartyiCover art: The brown background and typeface are certainly intended to appear as a leather volume from days gone by.  If the cover generates interest among young adults, it would be based on the haunting image of terrorized eyes peering through holes in an inhuman mask.  The spine was not remarkable; one would have to be looking for this volume as it does not stand out on the shelves.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)


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