The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, by M. T. Anderson is a compelling book that encourages the reader to examine his own prejudices and assumptions. Octavian was a young boy being raised in a very unconventional household in New England. The time frame is the cusp of the American Revolution. Octavian and his mother enjoy lives of extreme privilege and advantages of every kind. It is not until he is a young man does Octavian realize he is a slave, and worse, an experiment. The men who are responsible for providing all of the riches that surround him are philosophers, intent on studying whether an African, if provided all of the benefits of Western culture and civilization, will nonetheless ‘revert’ to his African-ness at some point.
When the wealthy benefactor comes from England to survey the investment, he becomes deeply enamored of Octavian’s mother. She encourages him, but when his offer of a trouble-free life in England does not include marriage or freedom, she turns it down. His anger leads to an immediate change in her and Octavian’s status. Shortly thereafter the chief experimenter, Mr. Gitney, decides to host a smallpox party. One of the few who die from the infection is Octavian’s mother. Thus free of sentimental ties to the Novanglian College of Lucidity, Octavian is free to escape.
This is an uncomfortable book. The philosophers and scientists do not seem to understand that to have Octavian and his mother as subjects of an experiment denies their basic humanity. In the cause of science and exploration, these men adopt the view common to the day that Africans were not to be seen as the same type of human as white men. Yet, the extraordinary abilities of Octavian in languages, the classics, and music belie their firmly held tenets. In bondage, he flourishes and thrives. When he escapes, his abilities betray his freedom. He has a brief flirtation with the cause of American freedom, but cannot understand why that cause does not include freedom for all.
This book, especially if listened to on tape by a family traveling, will provide a wealth of opportunities to learn new vocabulary. It will also give you a chance to discuss these issues – such as “who does freedom belong to”? Was it right to delay freedom for the slaves so that freedom for the nation could occur? What might have happened if the patriots of the New England colonies had insisted on freedom for the slaves as part of the deal? What tragedies might have occurred? What tragedies might have been averted?
Get to the library and get the book! But be careful – there are two volumes of this book. You definitely want to get them in order! The first is The Pox Party, the second The Kingdom on the Waves.