BY SEAN CLARK
Author: M.T. Anderson
2006, Candlewick Press
Right off the bat: this is a YA book with an agenda. If the jacket copy is to be believed (and in this case, as is general, it isn’t really) a shocking twist occurs early on. This happens about 50 pages into the 350 page book, and in order to get through this review, I’m going to have to spoil that one. So if you require twists in your books, perhaps you should skip this review. I won’t spoil the plot point that catalyzes it however.
Here’s the meat of spoiler: Octavian, the protagonist, is black. In fact, he’s a slave. Because we observe Octavian in the beginning living the life of a rich colonial Boston aristocrat child–studying classical languages, performing science experiments, being catered to by servants and slaves–this is intended to be a big shocker. And, to be fair, it might have been more affecting if I were a younger reader. Instead the heavy hand with which it was delivered deflated the moment of Octavian’s realization–a particularly disturbing and monstrous scene–that he was not an experimenter of science, but the subject of an experiment.
Octavian and his mother (who is treated like an African queen) live with a group of “rational philosophers” who go by hierarchical numbers rather than names. Octavian’s (and his mother’s, to an extent) capacity for knowledge and socialization is being studied by these rich white men. And odd and objectifying as that is, there is a degree of compassion to that which is happening. Anderson does an excellent job and focusing his story through an historical lens. So while these experiments turned my the stomach a bit, when seen from the perpective of a colonial Tory, as Anderson encourages us (and Octavian) to do, it’s hard to see it as a malicious thing.
That of course changes. Due to the political unrest in the American colonies, and Octavian’s mother’s noble actions, the philosopher’s program loses its benefactor and its funding. Rather than shut down, the philosophers agree to be funded by rich Virginians. These men want the experiments on Octavian to continue, not to highlight the capabilities of the young black child, but to propagandize his deficiencies as a sub-human born for slavery. The odds are quickly stacked against Octavian, and the experiments on him and his mother quickly go beyond malicious to ghastly.
The writing, I must mention, is excellent. Anderson varies his styles, effortlessly transitioning to and from standard narration, posters with dated typesetting imitations, epistolary exchanges, etc. As I mentioned before, he writes in the historical voice quite deftly, making the narration feel authentic without being too dense for younger readers. Moreover, he has a knack for touching on heavier subjects without overdoing it (not including the one glaring occasion I mentioned already).
“You have not eaten for three days,” they said.
“I am Observing,” I replied, “as you taught me.”
“What have you observed?”
“The solidity of shackles. They increase the solidity of the body. When I walk free, I am not conscious of my solidity.”
“Yes. Shackles, like all matter, are defined by resistance.”
“Do not tell me,” I said to them, “what is defined by resistance.”
The book definitely has a lot to say about the attitudes of the whites toward the blacks. The problem is, when your agenda is equal rights are good and slavery is bad, you’re kind of beating your reader with an obvious stick. In choosing this book, I was looking for a little more of an historical fiction adventure, like Johnny Tremain but less corny. And while revolutionary Boston is quite present, it isn’t presented with the vibrancy I would have liked–neither in setting or political atmosphere.
So while it does broach some important subjects, Octavian Nothing is agressive with them almost to the point of didactics. This isn’t bad or unwarranted, but nor is it fun. A blend of both would have been better, and made me want to read on in the series. Now that I know the sequel will be a downer, I’m not that motivated to read it. Because of its visceral representation of the awful inequalities present at America’s birth, this is an excellent book to assign to a 5th grade American history class, but it’s not such a great pick-up-and-enjoy affair.