Octavian is the son of an African princess re-named Cassiopeia by the white man who purchased her while pregnant and brought her to live at the Novanglian College of Lucidity in Boston, Massachusetts in the late 1700s. Octavian knows only an odd life of privilege and scientific observation as the college’s academicians are engaged in all kinds of ongoing experiments. Eventually, Octavian learns that he is the college’s largest and most valuable experiment….which is why I include science fiction to my description of the book. The pseudo-science of the 1700s is very much part of this novel.
The college sets out to observe whether or not African boys have the same capacities as white, European boys. Octavian shows not only at least equal ability but a tremendous capacity for learning the Classics, language and music. He also demonstrates a keen ability to observe in the scientific sense and by scientific method. This is all well and good for Octavian and his mother until the college loses its funding source and must align itself with a corporation of southern businessmen who fund the college and re-direct the experiment of Octavian to prove that African boys have less capacity for thought, reason and learning than white European boys.
Octavian escapes the college just as revolution breaks out in surrounding Boston. He has good reason to question what and for whom liberty is being fought for during his participation in the Battle of Bunker Hill as a runaway. After re-capture and return to the college, Octavian battles the desire to end his life, obtaining freedom through death--witnessed during his stint in the patriotic forces, and confronting his “enlightened” masters. When given an opportunity to escape to freedom again, will he take it?
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing earned the National Book Award in 2006 and many, many additional literature prizes. Much has been written about its unsettling gothic tone and unique look at the American Revolution and its portrayal of the lives of African Americans in our History. There are several links below that can shed better light on the book than I can. The best link, in my opinion, is the interview of the author by NPR about the book.
The Astonishing Life … is a great read for older teens, as M.T. Anderson intended as well as for adults fascinated with the Revolutionary War era. I think it would make a fantastic book for US History teachers to read and discuss….the tone, perspective and direction of the novel would definitely impact my teaching of the time period and events. I would ask students to consider more questions about freedom and property and enlightened ideals.
Anderson, M.T. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume I. New York: Listening Library, 2007. CD.
Additional Reviews and Interesting Information:
Fabulous Audio Interview of author M.T. Anderson on NPR