Thursday, August 27, 2009


This is not the only book I've read lately. But it's the only one that I can't keep quiet about for more than a couple of hours after finishing it. I can't believe I haven't heard more people talk about it.

I stumbled on The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing in a search for a novel set around the American Revolution to supplement S's homeschool curriculum for this year (fifth grade).

Well, it is most definitely not a fifth-grade book. I would think readers should be at least 13, older if they are sensitive. I may wait until Sam is older than that before he reads it, because I know he will identify to some degree with the young, African-American protagonist, and it's such a complicated and disturbing book. But I definitely will want him to read it.

The story comes to you as a first-person, 18th-century account from Octavian (that's the protagonist) mixed in with fictionalized "primary sources" to piece together his story from the times he's not able to write. Having spent a fair bit of time with archaic American newspaper prose myself in my college days, I confess to diving into this with a weird English-major joy.

Octavian is reared by eccentric philosophers in Boston, educated as an experiment along with his very young and beautiful mother, an African princess. When the philosophers' club falls on hard times, the truth comes out: He and his mother are really slaves like any others, subject to the whims of their owners, and their treatment changes abruptly. Revolution shakes the region and Octavian becomes a fighter, his horrible past providing an upsetting contrast to the still-inspiring (I think) idealism of the young men with whom he serves the cause of the colonies. Unwitting betrayal, captivity, and poison play their part. The end is really no end at all, because there are two more books. I can't wait.

(By the way, I dearly hope to see a black actor of the first order play the part of Bono, an older slave in the philosophers' household when this series makes it to the big screen, as it certainly must. Denzel, are you listening?)


Jen said...

Ooooohhhh, I'm putting this on the kids' reading list. Thanks!!!!

alyddall said...

wow - I checked this out and read it after I saw it on your blog. It is some pretty intense stuff. Can't wait for the next installment!