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.
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