The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is an impressive, beautiful, and at times quite challenging young adult novel. It follows the main character, Octavian, through several years of his youth as a slave in eighteenth-century America. Octavian, however, is not just growing up throughout the novel: his development into a complex, textured character mirrors the transformation of the American colonies into a new, equally complex nation.
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Octavian was born to a beautiful woman who was once a princess in Africa but is now a slave in the North American colonies. When the novel starts, Octavian is being raised as a scientific experiment by a group of amateur philosophers who want to determine precisely how the intellect of the African compares to that of the Caucasian. Octavian is therefore both a slave and the subject of scientific scrutiny. That dynamic produces in the novel tremendous intellectual insight, beautiful portraits of period activities—and scenes of aching loneliness.
That loneliness colors the novel as Octavian grows up and his position in colonial society gets more complicated and dangerous. As his life plays out against the backdrop of pre-Revolutionary politics, and then becomes actively intertwined with the U.S. Revolutionary War, Octavian tries to figure out who he is and how he can be free. The intellectual and emotional complexities Octavian experiences are matched by the book’s stylistic complexities. The novel changes tone, perspective, and even form, moving from stately and stylized prose early in the novel to letters and newspaper clippings from period philosophers, slave catchers, and farmers turned soldiers later in the book. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is not always an easy novel to read, but it does an admirable job of exploring the period’s key clashes and conflicts, many of which still have a lingering effect on American society
When The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing opens, Octavian is being raised by a group of amateur philosophers at the Novanglian College of Lucidity as a scientific experiment to determine the intellectual capacity of the African race. He lives in a completely artificial setting where people’s names have been replaced by new ones, or by numbers, and where every detail of his day is analyzed, right down to his feces. Though a slave, his mother plays the role of a salon mistress, the only woman trading witty comments with a crowd of male intellectuals.
This lasts until the Novanglian College of Lucidity’s aristocratic patron, Lord Cheldthorpe, dies. When his son, the Earl of Cheldthorpe, succeeds him, Mr. Gitney, whose house hosts the college, tries to persuade him to continue funding their research. Although the Earl of Cheldthorpe is not really very interested in science, he is extremely interested in Octavian’s mother, Princess Cassiopeia. Hoping to save the college, Gitney encourages Cheldthorpe, who eventually expresses his sexual desire for Princess Cassiopeia. He asks if she would like him to purchase her, to keep her as a mistress; she instead asks him to marry her. He declines and tries to rape Cassiopeia. Octavian tries to defend his mother, and both of them are whipped as a result.
The Earl of Cheldthorpe withdraws his financial support from the college, and Gitney must find new backers. Richard Sharpe becomes the new overseer at Novanglian. Sharpe shifts the investigations from the pure inquiries of science into more practical research. He also modifies the experiment involving Octavian so that it will intentionally fail. Octavian’s studies change from classical literature to basic grammar, and he must start doing household chores and performing with his violin for money.
Another slave, Bono, tutors...
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