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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
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This book held my attention from Page One through Last. I read it in about a day. EXCELLENT READ.Published 7 days ago by MashkaSJB
When you combine the unique storyline, engaging literary approach, and interesting perspectives on issues like slavery and the American Revolution, I can understand why this book... Read morePublished 21 days ago by Annette Lamb
Why this is in the teen section I do not know, I say that because the language is so old that it makes it really hard to sometimes comprehend. Read morePublished 27 days ago by whoopwhoop
This is the book that does it; moves me to write a review. It's acclaimed so I purchase it for my nephew but it's not written following a familiar narrative. Read morePublished 1 month ago by MomLovesYA
An interesting look at slavery in Revolutionary War times. A different perspective. I'm now reading volumne 2, which continues the story.Published 3 months ago by James Foley
Interesting read. I love how the story is told through the eyes of an African child as he grows, protected from the ravages of slavery under the guise of kindness and... Read morePublished 3 months ago by NATIVEDETROITER
Writing was unique and captivating-just couldn't put it down. I enjoyed it very much and later purchased the sequel--which was equally well written.Published 5 months ago by Mellie