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.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Anderson, M. T. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves (4 stars out of 4)--
I normally do not review sequels in this column; if you liked the first one, you will probably buy the others yourself without any reminders from me (unless the series gets too inappropriate for your level, like, in the opinion of some, the later Twilight books or some manga series). However, I must make an exception for M. T. Anderson’s brilliant, innovative, and groundbreaking sequel The Kingdom on the Waves. I was already a fan, but Mr. Anderson’s lyrical yet searing portrait of Colonial Revolutionary America through the eyes of a classically-trained slave may be the most original adventure yarn of our generation. No other character I have ever read lives and breathes both the promise and potential of 1775, and the humiliation and hypocrisy of American slavery, more eloquently than loyalist Private Octavian Nothing.
At the end of Volume I, Octavian Nothing had poisoned his owners with the help of his mentor, Dr. John Trefusis, and ran away from his childhood home, Boston’s Novanglian College of Lucidity, a self-described school of 18th century natural philosophy. Octavian swapped a certain life of misery and enslavement for an uncertain but brave new world. Due to horrid mistreatment, Octavian had nothing to lose by drugging and escaping his masters: “But that morning, I had been a prisoner, a metal mask upon my face, and my jowls larded with my own vomit, in a condition which could hardly have been more debased” (4). Sensing his evolution into a new person, he briefly changes his name to Augustus per the Caesarian precedent, and Augustus finds work playing violin. But every situation is short-lived in 1775, and Nothing must decide which side to support in the growing conflict. The decision is easy: the loyalists offer manumission, the patriots do not. Donning his uniform, emblazoned with the words Liberty to Slaves, free at last, Private Nothing, having reverted to his original Octavian, cannot stop smiling: “As a free man, I am dressed far more meanly than I was as a slave, when I wore silks and lawn; and yet, there could be no finer raiment than such a shirt as this, though the smock be as course as hum-hum” (134). Private Nothing’s Ethiopian Regiment is assigned to Lord Dunmore’s fleet in Norfolk, where he is reunited with his only friend from his former life, Pro Bono, now Private William Williams. When Octavian seems puzzled by his choice of moniker, the openly cynical Williams explains: “‘They seem to favor the English names, the white folk. It’s my interest to please their affable selves at every o’clock of the day. So I reckoned the pale, forgettable names was the best . . . Richard Richards set a barn afire and he slain a sheep, so now I’m William Williams’” (169). Privates Nothing and Williams, along with their fellow black soldiers, commit to defending Norfolk from the traitorous rebels while accepting a new type of enslavement: uninspired and short-sighted leadership. Their loyalties and allegiances are strained and torn by all of the forces surrounding and engulfing them.
The two Octavian Nothing books are not easy reads; think of them as Mr. Anderson’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or A Brief History of Time; not impossible to read, but not something one flies through. The language is archaic and feels at times like the S.A.T., and the story is occasionally forwarded in a herky-jerky style by journal entries, letters, memos, illustrations, and proclamations. This unpredictable streak should not deter readers, it should invite them. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and the best things in life both require effort and earn rich rewards. Mr. Anderson’s brilliant use of Colonial slang and language style injects a strong dose of realism and immediacy into the narrative, elevating Octavian above his surroundings, forming in him a voice for all of history’s mistreated, noble souls. Mr. Anderson’s use of genuine primary sources not only demonstrates that he did his research, it exemplifies his ability to weave fiction and non-fiction together seamlessly, rendering those terms temporarily meaningless. The Kingdom on the Waves feels true and valid at the most fundamental level, because the injustice and hypocrisy that crawl out when he lifts the boulder of “liberty” is our collective heritage, and understanding Octavian’s conflicts illumines our own.


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