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Young Adult Fiction

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume 1

YA Fiction Review

by Lauren Alise Schultz

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 written by Jerry Griswold titled, “The American Revolution in Young Adult Novels.” The article discusses the ways which history textbooks and young adult fiction have traditionally 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 even wicked. This is true even in certain more recently published novels such as Gary Paulsen’s The Woods Runner. Additionally, 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.

At the start of the twenty-first century though, authors M.T. Anderson and Laurie Halse Anderson (no relation) have both written short series that provide African American perspectives on the American Revolution, and Griswold briefly summarized each. I never personally had an interest in much 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 overall. While I love reading novels by Latin American, Asian, African, and American immigrant authors because they offer perspectives of the world that are so very different from my own, American Colonial history was always presented to me in ways that quickly squashed any interest that I might have had in the time period. The idea that novels about the American Revolution could tell a more complicated story was intriguing to me.

Octavian Nothing, Volume One is narrated almost entirely by a young African American slave named Octavian. Instead of working in the fields, Octavian 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. Written from his perspective and in his voice, the narrative is narrated in very intelligent language 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 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 he narrates 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.

But one of the most interesting things to me about the novel is that although 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, as well as his grief regarding his mother’s death, prove to be too disturbing and overwhelming for him to fully 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 quite different from any other slave narrative, fictional or non-fictional, that I have read to date. It is also the most engrossing and powerful slave narrative that I’ve ever read and I think it should be a part of every high school curriculum.

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M.T. Anderson
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