The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson

Reading Time: 5.75 hours
Pages: 561-88 (already read before the 48-hour Reading Challenge started)= 473.
Complete Titles:
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation:
Volume 1: The Pox Party
Volume 2: The Kingdom on the Waves

All I can say is that Mr. Anderson is quite a talented writer. I am in awe at the creation of the characters of Octavian Nothing and his friends and foes. I spent the first three months of 2009 reading biographies of various of our nation’s founders: George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton. (I started reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, but I was by that time so annoyed by what I perceived as Mr. Jefferson’s simultaneous intelligence and hypocrisy that I did not finish.)

If Octavian is to be believed, all of our founders were Jeffersonian in their conflicted thinking about liberty and the pursuit of freedom and happiness. The two volumes of Octavian Nothing do a creditable job of showing the other side, perhaps the dark underside, of the American colonies’ fight for independence from British tyranny. Men fought for “freedom” while denying the same to thousands of enslaved Africans. And in fact, many of them never even saw the contradiction.

Not only are the two books profound in their treatment of the essential incongruity that lies at the heart of our nation’s founding, but Mr. Anderson also has some considerable skill in simply writing about the vagaries of human nature and of men’s relations with one another. Two examples:

“He was that nature of personage who, when they laugh, make all who don’t laugh feel prim; and when they are solemn, make all have been laughing sensible of the chill of silence and the feebleness of gaiety. How doth the voice of one determine the pitch of the others!”

I have known that person! Haven’t you? I have even been that person at times. Then, on the intentions of enslavers and the escape from slavery:

“They want us with no history and no memory. They want us empty as paper so they can write on us, so we ain’t nothing but a price and a an owner’s name and a list of tasks. . . . We’ll slip through and we’ll change who we must needs be and I will be all sly and have my delightful picaresque japes. But at the end of it, when it’s over, I shall be one thing. I shall be one man, fixed, and not have to take no other name. I shall be one person steadily for some years.”

Wow! Again, I stand in admiration of the author who wrote such prose, who was able to enter into the mind of a fictional eighteenth century slave, freed by his own efforts, only to find that man everywhere carries the mark of sin and slavery with him . . .

Over 1000 pages in the two volumes of this story, and every page is gold, or at least silver. Read it. (But why these books are classified as young adult fiction, or even worse children’s fiction, is beyond me. I find it difficult to believe that many people under the age of sixteen could get through the first volume.) However, Drama Daughter (17) says she read it, and although she found it to be hard going at times, she thought it was quite good.

6 thoughts on “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson

  1. AGREED! I thought the reader needed to be much older than it is marketed for. If for no other reason than the fact that the subject matter is quite intense.

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