The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M T Anderson
|The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M T Anderson|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A stupendous historical novel of vast proportions about the birth of the United States and the meaning of liberty. Advanced, absorbing, inspirational stuff, but its difficulty gives it limited appeal.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 592||Date: November 2008|
We left Octavian with his tutor Doctor Trefusis, having escaped the College of Lucidity in the aftermath of the pox party. The Revolutionary War is now fully underway and they make it to British-occupied Boston, where Octavian hears of Lord Dunmore's offer to free any slaves who sign up for his Royal Ethiopian Regiment. And so Octavian finds himself fighting on the side of the counterrevolutionaries when only a few months before he'd been digging ditches for the Patriots.
Happily, he is reunited with Pro Bono (now Private William Williams), his friend from the Novanglian College but it takes him some time to fit in with his peers - while Octavian was learning the classics with Mr Trefusis, they were breaking their backs on the plantations. But while Octavian was given music and the arts, he was deprived of his heritage, and he hungers for stories from his fellows. Unhappily, the story of the Royal Ethiopians is not a glorious one, and smallpox and failed campaigns ravage its ranks while Octavian ponders the myriad meanings of liberty.
This is such a marvellous book. Any nation coming from war has murkiness in its birth and the United States is a perfect example. Octavian's story reveals a world far from the plucky democratic colonists of its national myth. It shows an ugly underbelly in which a nation grew from stupendous abuses of two entire peoples. But of course, the British were no better than the Patriots - both sides used the slavery issue for strategic reasons only, and neither treated black people with anything other than contempt. Freedom means many different things to many different people and Octavian Nothing explores every single shade and every single definition.
There are some light moments though - Octavian is hilariously tongue-tied around a girl he likes. Doctor Trefusis is a Shakespearean Falstaff kind of character. He's rootless, naughty, and a chancer. But he is, at heart, one of the good guys, in a book that sorely needs good guys.
However, it is difficult. It uses eighteenth century diction and syntax throughout and the vocabulary is, shall we say, advanced. Do you know what animadvert means? I certainly didn't until I looked it up. The book is also full of subtle references - that book of poems by the Negress refers to Phillis Wheatley, but I only knew about that because I'd just read a book about her. And of course, thematically, it's tremendously complex.
Difficult books for children tend to polarise reviewers. Some gush, and some are critical, saying they are books adults love but many children actually hate and are therefore somehow inappropriate. It's almost a polar reversal of the argument about the Harry Potter books - adults like them too, so they must be good. Well, Harry Potter books are entertaining, but they aren't good in a literary sense. They're light genre fiction. That, to me, is neither a bad nor a good thing. It just is. Similarly, Octavian Nothing is good in a literary sense. It's more than good; it's an absolute triumph. Its difficulty doesn't make it any more or less a book for children, it simply makes it a book that some children will find too much of a challenge.
Those who can approach it will find it absorbing, fascinating, enlightening, and provoking. How could that be inappropriate? For thoughtful American children it will become part of a necessary national conversation about the country's sense of self. And for them, and everyone else, it's an invigorating look the biggest questions about human civilisation.
Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons by Ann Rinaldi is a more accessible view of the birth of the United States in a fictionalised biography of Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet. Jupiter Williams by S I Martin talks about life for black people in London during the same historical period.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M T Anderson at Amazon.com.
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