Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Yanda's Book of the Week: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Vol 1 The Pox Party

I heard about this book for a while and it's on the New York Times best-sellers list, but I just got around to reading this really fascinating historical novel set right before the Revolutionary War by M.T. Anderson. Octavian is an African-American boy who's living as the slave of Boston academic Mr. Gitney, along with his mother. Though he and his mother are owned by Mr. Gitney, there isn't a clear master-slave relationship. Mr. Gitney teaches Octavian the violin, dresses him in fine clothes, and he teaches him to read classic literature. It's only when Octavian discovers papers in Mr. Gitney's room that changes that relationship forever.

The papers Octavian discovers show that Mr. Gitney was treating Octavian to violin and reading lessons not as part of his education, but as part of an experiment to show African-Americans are inferior to Whites. Octavian is insulted, especially when a sponsor
of Gitney's attributes Octavian's violin playing to a deal with the devil, but he tolerates the experiments for the sake of research. Mr. Gitney takes the experiments too far, though, when he gives a " pox party'' to give guests and Octavian's mother smallpox to see if African-Americans and Whites react differently to the disease. The discovery and results of this experiment drive Octavian over the edge and make him question every part of his life as a slave, especially against the backdrop of the start of the fight for American independence.This book was a little hard to read at first because of the language, but it's not ''Shakespeare hard''. Rereading the sentences helped me a lot and this book is so well-written and thought-provoking, I want to reread the whole book. I'm sure you've never read a book about the Revolutionary War or slavery like this, and it should be required reading for high school students learning about that war, slavery, or American history in general. Octavian Nothing is a refreshing young adult novel that really makes history come alive.

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