The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Updated: Sep 28, 2022
Right around the time that I started reading The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party, I found an excellent article on the Parents’ Choice website about M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing novels, written by Jerry Griswold. It is entitled “The American Revolution in Young Adult Novels," and it discusses the ways in which history textbooks and young adult fiction have traditionally both portrayed the subject of the American Revolution as a fairly uncomplicated war. Democracy was progress, so of course the American Colonists were depicted as the good guys, and the British Loyalists were generally portrayed as cruel and wicket. This is true even in certain recently published novels, such as Gary Paulsen’s The Woods Runner. In addition, Native Americans had sometimes been included in YA Revolutionary War novels, but usually remained fairly undeveloped characters—while the perspectives of slaves and immigrants were completely ignored.
Here at the start of the twenty-first century, however, M.T. Anderson and Laurie Halse Anderson (no relation) have both written two-book series that give African American perspectives on the American Revolution, and Griswold briefly summarized each. I never had much of an interest in historical fiction as a kid—all my friends were pouring over The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, while I was reading Nancy Drew mysteries—but Griswold’s article piqued my interest in the writing of both Andersons, as well as Revolutionary War fiction in general. I love reading Multicultural and “Global” Literature because novels by Mexican, Asian and African authors offer perspectives of the world that are so very different from my own. The idea that novels about the American Revolution could tell a more complicated story was—and continues to be—intriguing to me.
Octavian Nothing, Volume One is narrated almost entirely by a young African American slave, who instead of working in the fields, has been the subject of a “philosophical experiment.” A group of scholars, tutors and men of science have educated Octavian in the classics, in order to measure his progress as a student and determine whether or not Africans have an equal capacity to develop intellectually to that of Europeans. The narrative, then, is written in very intelligent terms and brings to mind the historical figure of Fredrick Douglass. Upon his escape from slavery, Douglass was able to become a famous orator, writer and abolitionist leader because his master’s wife had taught him to read, thus beginning his education. But in contrast to Douglass, Anderson’s character Octavian is not yet in a position to lead his fellow slaves; he has been mostly taught Greek literature, fine arts, and experimental sciences—which he finds have no real application in the real world.
His education gives him a unique perspective, however, and like both Douglass and the educated slave girl Harriet Jacobs, Octavian has the ability to narrate his own experiences more clearly and more sympathetically than an uneducated slave. It is quite clear why the novel won both the National Book Award and the Michael L. Printz Award; Octavian wrestles with many painful situations in intelligent terms. He describes the mistreatment and death of his young mother at the hands of the so-called philosophers who have educated him, then his own flight, brief freedom, recapture, and second escape. While a portion of the novel is narrated by a white colonist, the majority of the book embarks upon the project of giving voice to the previously silenced African American population of the Revolutionary Era.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the novel, though, is that even though Octavian is extremely educated and has an immense vocabulary, he still cannot find the words to adequately describe certain experiences. The confusion that he feels when he discovers that he has been the subject of an experiment and his grief regarding his mother’s death both prove to be too powerful for anyone to truly explain. Therefore, even though Octavian could seem too educated to be sympathetic to readers, the gross injustices visited upon him emphasize that every man—whether slave or free, educated or uneducated, character or reader—is equal in the face of devastating loss.
While the title of the novel may seem excessively long, it is accurate—the events of this young slave's life are truly astonishing, and this is the most engaging slave narrative, fictional or non-fictional, that I have read to date.