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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #289: Octavian Nothing

They're all pox parties, now.

The 2006 young adult historical novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation is a fascinating, ambitious, haunting undertaking by author MT Anderson. Set in tumultuous Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, it follows the cosseted life of young Octavian, a black house-slave owned by the mysterious Mr. Gitney, head of the "College of Lucidity", a learned society of scientists and philosophers. Octavian (and his mother, the African princess Cassiopeia) are treated well by Gitney and his organization - the boy learns ancient languages, the violin, and other skills. This is all, however, an experiment, an inquiry into the inherent difference between the races.

Financial woes haunt the College, and the experiment (and Octavian) are transferred to the control of the rapacious Mr. Sharpe and his financial cabal. Things begin to fall apart, as Octavian's pampered upbringing comes to an end as Sharpe tries to bend the experiment to prove white superiority - his business interests are deeply connected to southern plantation owners. Eventually the household is moved out of the city when a pandemic of pox strikes. In keeping with the innovative science of the day, Mr Gitney holds a "pox party", infecting a group of guests with weak strains of the virus in the hopes to granting immunity. The vaccine saves Octavian, though not his mother, and his rage at her death spurs him to flee. He hooks up with the Colonial Army, and has subsequent adventures until he is recaptured and is returned to his slavery.

The narrative is disjointed, often upsetting, with prose that attempts to capture the style and patois of the time, with partial success. Anderson's colonial Boston is part historic and part fantastic, with a sort of dark pastel veneer. Still, it paints Octavian as an intriguing individual - quiet, thoughtful, introverted, brilliant - a young man utterly unsure of his place in the world, his identity, his destiny.

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