Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation--Volume One, The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson (4 out of 4 stars)

Let me begin by saying that M. T. Anderson's last book, Feed, is my favorite sci-fi book of the last few years, ranking in my all star list with titles like Rodman Philbrick's The Last Book in the Universe and Robert C. O'Brien's Z for Zachariah. Therefore, I was expecting science fiction (or some reasonable facsimile) when I picked up Anderson's excellent new novel. Instead, I got some of the most engaging historical fiction I have ever read.

Octavian is an African prince who is sold in Colonial America (around 1770) with his mother Princess Cassiopeia, formerly of the Oyo tribe. Son and mother are owned by a college of natural philosophy called the Novanglian College of Lucidity. The "philosophers" conduct experiments in all forms of science; even Octavian and his mother are experiments, which they will discover later. However, they are given a sophisticated, classical education and are treated to excellent food and clothing. Even though Octavian is not asked to perform slave-like duties during his early childhood, he must learn the realities of life for a person of color in colonial America from a fellow slave and mentor, Pro Bono: “He held out the written pass. ‘This is what they want us to be,’ he said. ‘They want us to be nothing but a bill of sale . . . they’re on the exploration of themselves, going on the inner journey into their own breast. But us, they want there to be nothing inside of. They want us to be writ on. They want us to be a surface’” (136). As the Revolutionary War approaches, funding for the college dwindles and new investors make increasingly uncomfortable demands of everyone, especially Octavian and Cassiopeia.

The story is told as a narrative, but it is frequently interrupted with letters, posters, and news stories that cleverly continue Octavian's story. M. T. Anderson can definitely write, and he shows off his skills in this brilliantly conceived novel. By setting his latest novels (this story was conceived as a two-volume set) during the Revolutionary War, he dually examines our participation in Iraq. By making the protagonist a slave classically trained by Europeans, he dually examines the role of racism, stereotypes and multiculturalism in our culture. I know you 7th graders are studying this period in history (and 8th graders still have it fresh in their minds), so this would be a great supplement to your understanding and appreciation for the difficulties of this pivotal time in America. But besides all of that, it's a great book.


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