Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, vol 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party 
by M.T. Anderson

January 22nd 2008 (first published 2006) by Candlewick
Paperback, 368 pages
0763636797 (isbn13: 9780763636791)

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Young People's Literature
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (2007)
2007 Printz Honor

I read this book in early February of this year, but have been too timid to review it. Now, with my review of The Obama Revolution by Alan Kennedy-Shaffer being posted tomorrow, I thought it was a good time to throw my two cents into the dialogue of race and literature.

The first volume of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is the story of a young boy in 1760s Boston. He and his mother, who is a West African princess, live at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. They are both treated as royalty, dressed in silks and taught Latin, Greek, music and mathematics. Through Octavian's innocence, the reader is subjected to all manner of degrading and inhuman scientific inquiries, so that by the time the boy realizes he is merely a test subject, a slave, the reader's soul has already begun to squirm.

The tale moves through a Pox Party - a sort of vaccination quarantine - which results in the death of Octavian's mother. Observant, (naturally) intelligent and well-learned, Octavian cannot bear the circumstances which ensue. He becomes mute, and escapes to join the army. The last third of the book is told in the colonial colloquialisms of a fellow soldier writing home to his family.

This novel is so dense, I very much agree with ALA Booklist:
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. . .
The detail of Pox Party is alarming, truly. The breadth and scope of Andersen's allusions is beyond even my higher-education background (I'm adding Gulliver's Travels to my Fill in the Gaps list.) The horrors of the era are clear, and cemented firmly in the racist history and beliefs of such dignitaries as Thomas Jefferson. The experiments are absurd and gut-wrenching (the child's feces are weighed and examined against the content of his meals.) There are scenes of graphic violence against Octavian and his mother.

Coincidentally, I have just finished reading The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson, who, in 2006 reviewed Pox Party for The New York Times and had concerns about the intensity of Anderson's story. She wrote,
The chaotic early days of the conflict that would come to be known as the American Revolution unfold as a backdrop to his personal history, and the intensity of the violence Anderson depicts may be too intense for some readers.
For in addition to all of the detail, the history, the characterization, Pox Party is made that much more technically intricate by the fact that Anderson writes the entire thing in 18th century dialect. The feat is amazing; the result is less so. I have tremendous respect for Anderson and his ability to be so consistent in two-hundred year old styles of speech.

I would hope that my reaction to the novel is merely summed up by this observation from Publisher's Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.):
There's no question the premise is intriguing and the examination of issues noble. However, the meaty subject matter and Anderson's numerous stylistic devices (e.g. the use of different points of view and letters in dialect from another character) render this a challenging listen even for a sophisticated audience.

However, here's the plain truth.

I didn't like this book, and I have been afraid to say so.

I was afraid that I didn't like Pox Party because I might be racist.

No, no, no. Nothing like you're imagining.

I have to think there are shades of racism. I'm absolutely not anti-other races (just check out my Facebook profile quote). However, I couldn't and still can't decide if the fact that I couldn't identify with Octavian, that I felt so distant from him was an intentional plot device or an affirmation that, as a white woman, I could never hope to understand what it is to be the victim of racism.

I mean, I can go around saying all day long I believe in equality; I can vote for an African-American, I can boycott publishers whose quotas of authors of color are low, but at the end of the day, if I haven't truly tried to be inside the body and mind of a victim of racism, then aren't I myself still stuck in the quagmire of racism?

And for that matter, back to Pox Party, should Anderson have been the one to write this novel? I nearly fell off my chair when, in a Google search, I found out he's Caucasian. The tone of the novel is obviously sympathetic to Octavian and the plight of slaves. Anderson is, in fact, rather relentless in his condemnation of the men of the College and of the white society. I just wonder how the book might have been different, written by, for example, M.K. Asante, Jr. or David Bradley or Colson Whitehead.

I wrestle with these issues, all of them. I can only hope that my openness and honesty will be respected at least for what they are - the steps I myself can take. I haven't decided yet if I will read the second volume about Octavian. I'm not sure my heart can handle it.

As for Pox Party, I have read enough other reviews to know that I'm not alone in my feeling a little "off" in my reaction. Without a doubt, this is an important book. It's the kind that will do so well being taught in high school or college classrooms, where discussion and research are readily available. It's not the kind to read before you go to bed, or to take to the beach. But it is destined to be a classic, and I feel a little strangely about that, too.


  1. Wow...I am impressed by the level of thought you put in your own reaction to the novel. Me, I just figured I was bored!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I read the book because I was browsing the YA section about a year ago and liked the look of the spine. I finished it and I'm proud of that.

    I did.not.like it.
    And not just because it was disquieting, which it certainly was. The narrative felt disingenuous, disconnected from the narrator. Maybe that was a psychological distancing device, or a period device. Most importantly, it was a device that ended up distancing me from a desire to continue reading.

    I don't know if this book will become a classic or not. It felt like an 'important read', but, like you said, something felt off. Like if Porthos turned out to be a iron worker from Queens, or in Weekend at Bernie's where the main character is a corpse, animated and conveyed, but never acting independently.

  4. Hm, never heard of the book, but you have some really intriguing points especially after the statement that you do not like the book.

    I don't think anyone really revels in saying that they dislike a book or an author - at least, I know that I do not, but sometimes that is unavoidable and, as they say, you cannot please everyone.

    I might have to check this book out to see what you're talking about :)

  5. I doubt I could read it either. I don't think it's inherent racism to find reading something as you describe less than enjoyable. The slavery issue alone would, as you say, make the soul squirm; but the deliberate use of 18th Century colloquial speech too? I don't think so.

  6. You've given a really honest and heartfelt review of the book Aerin, be proud of that. I don't know the book and it's not something I would read. I have grown up in the quagmire of race issues and have watched the tables turn from one side to the other, so to speak, ie, I've experienced race issues from both sides of the fence. I don't want to have to read about it when I live it daily.

  7. GREAT review. I'm not familiar with this book and I have to admit it's probably not something I would read. You did a really great job expressing your feelings on the book, and I know it can be hard when you don't like what you read.

    BTW, I have also given you an award. You can pick it up here: http://www.melissas-bookshelf.com/2009/04/lets-be-friends-award.html

  8. You put a lot of thought into this review. I bought the book as a gift for a very special young man and voracious reader. Unfortunately, I never heard his reaction to it. It sounds like a lot of work to read. Though I love Jane Austen movies, I'm not fond of her writing style. I think I'd have the same issue here.

    I have experienced discrimination for being lesbian, being a woman and even for being white. But I don't think it compares to the all pervasive discrimination described in this book. I might still read this sometime when I have a stretch of dedicated reading time. Maybe.

    Have you tried Barbara Hambly's A Free Man of Color?

  9. Thanks so much for this honest and thought provoking review. I've been wondering about giving this a read.

    Also, I LOVE your blog header.

  10. Aerin - Thank you for your insight and honesty. I read and enjoyed The Pox Party and also read the second book, The Kingdom of the Waves. I agree, they are very dense and not for everyone. From what I've read by and about M.T. Anderson he grew up steeped in early American history, spent years on the books and believes that readers, even young ones, appreciate a challenge. Octavian's story is certainly that.

  11. Isn't it just a wee bit ridiculous to question whether a person's race makes them better suited to write books on certain topics? A good writer is a good writer. Why the surprise that Anderson is white?



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