A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.
--Robertson Davies

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10 stars

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I, The Pox Party

AR: 8
Lexile: 1090
RC: 8.3
by M. T. Anderson
Long Novel
Genre: Historical Fiction

National Book Award for Young People

Octavian is a child growing up in the Novanglian College of Lucidity. He wears expensive clothes, eats meals fit for kings, studies classic Greek and Latin texts. And he is a slave in pre-Revolution Boston. He is the subject of an experiment to determine whether Africans are inferior to Europeans.

This is an amazing book for advanced readers. Even though it was marketed as a young adult novel, I could easily recommend this to adult readers, as well. The story is very original yet, amazingly, based on actual conditions existing in pre-Revolutionary America. Octavian lives a life of seeming luxury until events interfere with his tranquil existence at the College of Lucidity. Very quickly, he comes to realize his true place in that society, and it's not all good. In the background, the colonists are getting restless and war erupts. Meanwhile, tragedy strikes during a Pox Party, an intentional quarantined gathering where attendees are infected by smallpox in the hopes of developing minor cases of the disease, which would then result in immunity to it. Because of this tragedy and its aftermath, Octavian runs away from the College and ends up in the Colonial army. (More happens after that, but I don't want to give it away!)

Through M. T. Anderson's clever writing, Octavian comes fully alive as a fascinating character in this drama. The story is told mostly by Octavian, who, with his classical training, uses words as deftly as a great painter uses oils. The pictures he paints with his language are not only fully realized, they are beautiful to behold! I will warn you, this beauty comes at a cost: Anderson writes his novel using 18th century grammar and language, and if you don't have a powerful vocabulary, you may get lost in the verbiage. But whenever Octavian is speaking, it was beautiful to hear, even when you couldn't understand all the words. 

On the other hand, about halfway through the book, when Octavian flees the college, his story is told through "other sources", letters, newspaper articles, and such that Mr. Anderson "collected" (along with Octavian's own diary). The change in style was a little jarring to me. It was all still very realistically 18th century prose, but compared to Octavian's carefully selected words, the vulgar writings of soldiers and farmers sounded coarse and unpleasant. It was like listening to a great symphony and right in the middle, someone soloed with an Irish jig. It's not that the jig is a bad thing, you just don't really want to hear it in the middle of an orchestral piece. Thankfully, this volume ends with Octavian telling what happens next. 

And speaking of what happened next, I can't wait to find out what happened next! This is only Volume I of a two-volume tale. If you are a strong reader and can invest the time to get through this, you will be rewarded, and most likely, like me, eager to continue with Octavian on his great adventure!

Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook version:
(Last modified:10/02/2011)

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