From School Library Journal
Grade 9 Up–In this fascinating and eye-opening Revolution-era novel, Octavian, a black youth raised in a Boston household of radical philosophers, is given an excellent classical education. He and his mother, an African princess, are kept isolated on the estate, and only as he grows older does he realize that while he is well dressed and well fed, he is indeed a captive being used by his guardians as part of an experiment to determine the intellectual acuity of Africans. As the fortunes of the Novanglian College of Lucidity change, so do the nature and conduct of their experiments. [...] Readers will have to wait for the second volume to find out the protagonist's fate. The novel is written in 18th-century language from Octavian's point of view and in letters written by a soldier who befriends him. Despite the challenging style, this powerful novel will resonate with contemporary readers. The issues of slavery and human rights, racism, free will, the causes of war, and one person's struggle to define himself are just as relevant today. Anderson's use of factual information to convey the time and place is powerfully done.–Sharon Rawlins, NJ Library for the Blind and Handicapped, Trenton
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*Starred Review* M. T. Anderson's books for young people reflect a remarkably broad mastery of genres, even as they defy neat classification. Any labeling requires lots of hyphens: space-travel satire (Feed,
2002), retro-comic fantasy-adventure (Whales on Stilts,
2005). This genre-labeling game seems particularly pointless with Anderson's latest novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor
to the Nation (2006), an episodic, highly ambitious story, deeply rooted in eighteenth-century literary traditions, which examines, among many other things, pre-Revolutionary slavery in New England.
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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