The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. I: The Pox Party, by M.T. Anderson
The setting is Boston, during the opening salvos of what will eventually become the American Revolution.
Octavian is a child with an emperor’s name and a mother of royal descent, raised in a household of Enlightenment scholars and natural philosophers. Accustomed to the eccentricities of their scientific pursuits, Octavian takes the oddities of his everyday life for granted. His meals, for instance, are weighed and recorded daily, as are the contents of his chamberpot. Between the courtly compliments paid to his mother and the impeccable classical education that he is acquiring, Octavian remains unaware for many years that he and his mother are both slaves.
As we read Octavian’s “manuscript testimony,” interspersed with letters, newspaper articles, and other documents, we are privy to a most unusual coming-of-age, and the disillusionment is heartbreaking to follow. Realizing that his beloved mother is only human, and flawed. Realizing, worse, that there are people who don’t see her as human at all.
The Pox Party isn’t a casual or easy read. From the iron mask-and-gag pictured on the cover, used on runaway slaves, to death by smallpox or tarring-and-feathering, the descriptions of violence are harrowing. Some of the most memorable passages are literally beyond words—just slashes of ink where Octavian has written something too painful to confront and marked it out again. And admittedly, I had to take several running jumps at the hurdle of the novel’s eighteenth-century prose style. Read this book when you have time to concentrate. Although the prose is dense and the sentences lengthy, Anderson makes every word count, and once I got used to its rhythm, the story simply took over.
Check the WRL catalog for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1