“The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Volume 1 The Pox Party” by M. T. Anderson

Octavian is a slave in Boston on the eve of the Revolutionary War.  His mother claims to be an African princess (I wonder if that is really true though…) and, while still pregnant, is bought by the “Novanglian College of Lucidity” (Novanglia = New England), a philosophical society of the times.  The gentlemen get the idea for a grand experiment to test the African capacity for learning – they aim to provide Octavian with the best education possible.

The experiment goes well, and young Octavian becomes well-versed in the classics and becomes a violin virtuoso.  But then the college falls on hard times, after its nobleman benefactor removes his financial support when he is spurned by Octavian’s mother.  A new head arrives, with a different goal for the Octavian study – he wants to prove that, despite the best education possible, an African cannot amount to much.  Octavian becomes more or less just another household slave, and is subjected to numerous indignities.  This all at the same time as revolutionary zeal for “freedom” is mounting; the disconnect between the colonists desire for freedom and the rejection of the same for their slaves is agonizing to Octavian.

The final straw is the pox party referred to by the title.  Octavian and everyone in the household are crudely inoculated against smallpox; many get sick anyway.  Octavian’s mother is one who dies.  Octavian walks in on the scientists dissecting her, and snaps.  His race’s status as things to be studied, not people, could not be made more apparent.  He runs away, finding a place digging ditches within the newly mobilized colonial militia.

There is a very interesting change in narration during the (short) period while Octavian is a runaway.  This period is told through a series of letters, mainly by fellow militiaman private Evidence Goring, writing to his sister Fruition (love those names).  The rest of the book is told from Octavian’s first person narration, using super-erudite period dialogue (which is also very interesting and humorous at times – e.g. the formal language Octavian uses to describe the scientists measuring his leavings in the chamberpot).

Octavian eventually is recaptured and subjected to further cruelties before escaping again with the help of one of the philosophers, kindly Dr. Trefusis.  The book ends with them escaping into occupied Boston…to be continued.

Lots of weighty stuff to think about here about race, slavery, equality, liberty, hypocrisy…  An interesting take on the time period as well.  In the wake of the Dunmore Proclamation, rumors that the British were trying to confiscate colonist’s weapons and simultaneously incite slave revolt made white colonists very, very nervous.  This is an aspect of the Revolution that I hadn’t considered/known about before.

Also interesting (accurate?): the colonists refer to the British army as the “Parliamentarian army”, etc.  Their enemy was Parliament, not the King.


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