What do you get when you combine wigs, breeches, chains, and a mask?
Having a little trouble putting that picture together? Not sure who, exactly, should be wearing such a motley assortment of items?
Worry not. Your confusion is totally understandable. The answer, though, is Octavian—the main character in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party—who offers up a highly unusual slave narrative. We're talking educational experimentation, a love affair with reason, and daring participation in the American Revolution. Heck, you might even say his story is, well, astonishing.
In fact, we're pretty sure the entire Octavian Nothing series (Volume 2 really is just as good as Volume 1) will blow your mind into intellectual outer space. That's because the life of our title character is about the weirdest—and also thought-provoking and painful—thing you can imagine for a slave in pre-revolutionary America.
Why? Because Octavian is basically brought up to be both a little lord and a slave—at the same time. If you know anything about slavery in pre-revolutionary America, you know that a slave educated like a lord isn't exactly standard fare. And that's the crux of M.T. Anderson's 2008 book: Octavian shouldn't make sense as a character because the whole entire institution of slavery doesn't make sense in the run-up to the American Revolution (or, you know, ever).
The fact that Octavian seems totally realistic as a character shows how hypocritical and truly horrendous the Patriots were toward their slaves as they fought against the British "tyranny" and "enslavement" of the colonials.
That American hypocrisy of blindness toward slavery is the focus of a book that completely forces you to reimagine how America came to be. This may not be a happy book, but it will make you think deeply about what America, as a nation, fundamentally means. Is it about liberty and freedom for all? Or is it about liberty and freedom for the few? We'll let you ponder that while you read…
Okay, so Octavian Nothing is about slavery and America and we know you know that's, like, super important because, well, it's slavery and American history and all. But we want to talk about Kwasi Enin, the son of Ghanaian immigrants who was accepted into… drum roll please… every single Ivy League college in 2014.
Yup—Every. Single. One.
Hip hip hooray, right? Like, how totally amazing and impressive is that?
The thing is, though, that instead of being met with congratulations, Enin's incredible personal victory was met with some serious—and seriously racist—disrespect. And we don't mean there were like, a few bitter kids at his school. We're talking folks taking to public forums to voice how unimpressed they are with Enin's accomplishments, and blaming Affirmative Action for his acceptance streak. The whole thing got pretty heated, pretty fast.
At the heart of Octavian Nothing sits Octavian, a highly-educated and intellectually-driven young man, treated like a scientific specimen and burdened with proving the mental capacity of all African people. A young black man living in a white man's world, it is hard not to think of parallels between his experience and Enin's in 2014.
Both young men are black, both young men have parents who came to the U.S. from Africa (though for very different reasons), and both manage to more or less beat white men at their own educational game. In response, both Octavian and Enin alike are ogled and argued over, treated like subjects for debate rather than celebrated for the intellectual depth they possess as individuals.
Octavian Nothing might not immediately make you think of the education system in place today, but if you keep Enin in mind as you read, we think you just might find yourself asking some good—albeit tough—questions about the state of education in our society today.
Shmoop's Guide to the American Revolution
This book doesn't go easy on historical knowledge, but worry not—we've got you covered.
Slavery in the Virginia Colony
We know, we know: the book doesn't actually ever take place in the Virginia colony. But it does get mentioned quite a few times, so if you want to know more about the place Bono got sent to, here you go.
The Constitutional Convention
How did slaves figure into the making of the Constitution? We know you're just burning to find out.
The Kingdom of Oyo
The truth of Cassiopeia's own background might be up for debate, but the Kingdom of Oyo is (or was, we should say) as real as things get. Get info on the rise and fall, and the role the slave trade played in Oyo.
Of course you're itching to get your hands on some of the books Octavian reads, like this one—Plutarch's Lives, especially "The Life of Crassus." We know—it's not exactly about Spartacus, but it does feature him in a big way:
All About M.T. Anderson
This is Anderson's official website, where you get to find out all he thinks you need to know about him:
For Your Edification…
So you want to be as well-read as Octavian? Here's a whole database of Greco-Roman classics for you to comb through.
Here's another PBS piece. This time, a focused look on the education of slaves.
PBS on Slavery in America
African Americans were key players in the American Revolution, and this site has loads of information on their contributions.
What the Brits Think
Or, at least, what one reviewer from the British paper The Guardian thinks about Anderson's book. Spoiler: this reviewer thinks the book is pretty awesome.
You Know You've Made it When…
… The New York Times loves you. And they really love "Anderson's imaginative and highly intelligent exploration of the horrors of human experimentation and the ambiguous history of America's origins."
Taking on Salman Rushdie and Other Issues
A hyper-intelligent, hyper-literary, free-ranging "conversation" between two YA authors, one of them being M.T. Anderson himself.
The Highly Entertaining 7 Impossible Things Blog Review
By the way, we aren't the only ones who think Bono and Prince should be on the soundtrack for this book.
The NPR Interview
Anderson digs deep into Octavian and his experience in this one.
To Mask or Not to Mask?
Like so many good books, Octavian Nothing has (at least) two different covers to its name: one with Octavian in an iron mask; another of some pastoral New England scene. Which one do you think works better? Compare away!
Just so you know, M.T. Anderson likes a game of Twister.