The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party is set in 18th century Boston during the time of the American Revolutionary War. It features a Black main character living among White people and deals with slavery and the war. Author M.T. Anderson doesn't flinch from the story's disturbing brutality and violence, especially the vicious beatings endured by enslaved people. One man is tarred and feathered, throats are slit, and soldiers and horses die. The biological details of the pox party -- where humans are intentionally infected with disease -- may nauseate some readers. Readers should also beware of the emotional toll inflicted upon Octavian as he witnesses atrocities and is betrayed by those he trusts. There's a bit of salty language ("slut," "bastard," and "s--t," each used once), characters refer to Native Americans as "heathens" and "savages," and there are some sexual references, including nudity and a mention of "the clap." Ultimately, the book's language and style make it best for mature teens who are up for a challenging read. This book won many children's literary awards, including the National Book Award for Young People's Literature and a Michael L. Printz Honor.
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What's the story?
At the start of THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1: THE POX PARTY, a prince and his mother, a princess, are kept in luxury and given a classical education in Revolutionary-era Boston by a group of scientists and philosophers who call themselves The Novanglian College of Lucidity. But Octavian and his mother are enslaved, and their treatment is just one of the experiments conducted in the household. They're not free, and they're always subject to the whims of their keepers -- a brutal truth that's brought home to them when the College gets a new source of funding and the nature of the experiment changes. Meanwhile, the country inches toward war, and the scientists have an unusual solution to the smallpox epidemic that's ravaging the countryside. Young Octavian will be tested physically and emotionally as he searches for the truth about his value as a human being.
Is it any good?
Historical novels often play fast and loose with the facts, but this coming-of-age story is well-researched and completely compelling. Octavian Nothing is intellectually complex, rich in language and ideas, and highly original. Author M.T. Anderson uses an approximation of the style of a classically trained 18th century writer, combined with an almost postmodern, episodic, time-shifting structure. For teens with a taste for high-level language, extended philosophical discourse, and complex literary structure, this will be a rare treat. But it may not resonate with younger teens or those not up for a real challenge.
Octavian is a fascinating character who will help readers connect deeply with the horrors of slavery and also get them thinking about some big identity questions. The supporting cast is rich in diversity, and the narrative brims with thematic exuberance. This volume is the first of two. Few readers will be able to resist seeking out the concluding installment.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the level of violence and brutality in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Does the fact that it's based on historical events make it appropriate? Is reading about violence any different from watching it on television or playing a violent video game?
What limits should be set on medical experimentation? How has human testing been valuable, and when has it been harmful?
What is freedom? Does it come from within, or is it bestowed on individuals?
What did you learn about American slavery that you didn't know before?
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