The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is the first in a two-part series that has really flown under the radar, as far as the YA reading habits of those around me go. It was originally recommended to me by a former coworker who also worked in the Children’s Department, but since then I haven’t heard much talk about it – which is why I think it qualifies as a hidden gem.
M.T. Anderson is one of those authors whose every book is incredibly different from the next. One of his better-known novels is Feed, a kind of speculative sci-fi story. He also wrote Thirsty, a book about a teenaged vampire. Both of these are as different from Octavian Nothing as they are from each other.
The first half of the series, The Pox Party, introduces Octavian as a young boy with no last name who is being brought up in a house of philosophers, in pre-revolutionary Boston. He is black, and his mother was captured in Africa and brought to America. Even though they live in a fine house, eat excellent food, and receive a stellar education, they are enslaved people. Octavian doesn’t understand the nature of his captivity, and relishes both the (mostly) kindly men who teach his lessons and the lessons themselves, particularly his instruction in music. He learns to play violin surprisingly well for a boy of his age, and often entertains the philosophers and his guests. He asks his mother about Africa, but receives little information. It’s only when he reaches his teen years and Boston is threatened both by the Revolutionary War and by smallpox that he learns the truth about his life.
The second book in the series, The Kingdom on the Waves, follows Octavian in the next stage of his life, as he struggles to find a way to be free. To write too much more would be to give away some plot points, but the sequel takes the ideas from the first book and expands upon them.
One of the most interesting elements to these books, though, is the idea that in Octavian’s experience, racism is present everywhere. Within the rebel camps and within the Loyalist camps, Octavian and the other black people around him are constantly caught in the middle – they are disrespected, they are denigrated, and their needs are ignored. Those who claim to care about their freedom are in it only for their own self-interest (which in Lord Dunmore’s case is free cannon fodder).
There’s another really poignant contrast between Octavian’s story and the stories of his fellow soldiers. Most of them were slaves on farms or plantations. They were beaten, abused, starved, and worked to the bone, and risked their lives to make harrowing escapes in order to join up with the Loyalists. Octavian, however, was looked after. He was well-fed, well-dressed, and well-educated. He feels as though his friends, even his very closest friends, resent him for his experience, and he’s often right. There’s an interesting question raised here about what mistreatment actually looks like, and what it means to have “had it worse” than someone else.
There’s a whole lot to think about in these books. The author provides a reading guide on his website, and I think there are many very interesting discussions to be had about these novels. The Pox Party and The Kingdom on the Waves may not jump off the shelf to every reader, but if you pick them up, they will richly reward a closer look.
-Kayleigh, children’s staff