Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume One by M. T. Anderson

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book was recommended by a friend. I listened to it with three of my kids: my eldest daughter, age 15; and my sons, ages 12 and 10. They are the ones who were interested in backpacking with me and brother-in-law, so we listened to it on that trip. 

This book is probably not suitable for all children. The subject matter is difficult, disturbing, and uncomfortable in the extreme. It isn’t as graphic as it could be, and the history behind the story is even worse, but some honesty is required. Nothing is gratuitous. Everything is necessary.

The story was loosely inspired by some real life events and institutions. The setting is the early American Revolution and the years before. The Novanglian College of Lucidity was inspired by various philosophical and scientific societies of the time. The “experiment” to determine if Africans were as intelligent as Europeans was actually a thing. The problem, of course, is that those who believed whites were superior couldn’t actually be persuaded by evidence then any more than they are now. And, as now, the scales are far from equal to begin with.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Octavian, a young African American living in Boston. His mother was enslaved when age 13, and pregnant with Octavian. The two of them are purchased by Mr. Gitney, the head of said College of Lucidity, and he raises Octavian with a classical and musical education. Gitney is fairly benevolent, and appears to want Octavian to succeed and prove the equality of the races.

However, things change when the English lord who has been funding the society dies. His heir comes to see if the society is worth funding, falls for Octavian’s mom, and tries to convince her to become his concubine. When she refuses, he attempts to rape her, and things go bad from there. The College is then thrown on the mercies of a new group of patrons, led by the villainous Mr. Sharpe, who represents the slaveholding wealthy of the South who wish to see Octavian fail.

Later in the book, at the outbreak of hostilities, Mr. Gitney holds a “pox party,” where the participants intentionally infect themselves with smallpox, in the hope that under ideal conditions, they will get milder, non-fatal doses. Unfortunately, some die anyway, including Octavian’s mom. He then escapes, and joins the American army briefly, before being recaptured. The book ends on a cliffhanger, which I assume will be resolved in the second book.

As this summary indicates, the subject matter itself is difficult. The fact of slavery is a blot on our nation, and on humankind in general. The racism inherent in the American institution is also a fact, and there is no sugar coating it. The author is pretty darn blunt about it, letting the various white characters say things that are horrifying to our modern ears, but which were very much in keeping with the times. This is pretty effective, since the story is mostly from Octavian’s point of view, and we have to hear all this racist poison as he would experience it. It truly is an offense against his humanity. He is considered chattel, and subhuman, and the white characters are flabbergasted that he can’t see things that way. (Hey, this sounds a LOT like many white people today!)

My kids really responded to this book, and are eager to read (or listen to) the next one. They are thoughtful and empathetic, and appreciate books like this that speak of history from the perspective of those wronged. While it may be a bit intense for younger kids, I highly recommend it for kids old enough to understand violence and oppression.


Note on Pox Parties:

These still exist, you know. Particularly for Chicken Pox. I am, as regular readers know, a big proponent of vaccination. I suffered through a bad case (although not life-threatening) of Chicken Pox when I was 12, and am thankful my kids won’t have to go through that.

The Pox Party in this book is rather interesting. To a degree, the College had a good point: survival rates would be better for people in a controlled environment, with what supportive care the medicine of the time could provide, warmth, food, and water. Certainly better than getting it at, say, Valley Forge in starvation conditions. But still, quite dangerous, and far from ideal. In 1775, this was the best they had, though. Smallpox is really contagious, and was going around at the time. Prevention wasn’t an option, and the spectre hung over all who hadn’t already survived it and become immune.

It was 21 years later, in 1796, that Edward Jenner proved the first successful vaccine - and by the time I was born, Smallpox was eradicated as a result. Here’s hoping we do the same for Polio and Measles and Rubella and…


  1. On your last sentence, polio is almost gone. If you go to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative website, you will see that less than 50 people have been diagnosed with polio this year. Compare that to 300K just 30 years ago. Credit goes to Rotary Clubs, the Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, working under the GPEI umbrella.

    1. We are indeed getting close. And yes, props to the fine organizations you have listed.