Plot: Octavian is the son of a proud Oyo princess. For as long as he can remember, they have lived in Boston in a house full of natural philosophers. He was given a classical education worthy of a prince and his every action was carefully studied. Just as he begins to understand the nature and purpose of his experiment, everything changes. Revolution, vanishing funds and a small pox epidemic strip him of all his remaining liberties and luxuries. His only solution may be to run.
I can’t believe this book has just been sitting on my shelf unread for years. I met M.T. Anderson when I was at BEA 2012 (and watched Shannon Hale write on his arm :)) and it’s probably best for him that I hadn’t read it yet. I would have gushed incoherently. I LOVED this book. Anderson is an amazing writer. I’m in awe of his perfectly constructed sentences, of his subtle language and of the way he captures both Octavian’s narrative voice and the language of the period.
This isn’t an easy novel. Anderson pulls no punches and I was often shocked breathless by the little inhumanities heaped upon Octavian and his fellow slaves. Though he asks for no pity, it’s hard not to be sickened by the way he is treated; in fact, the straight forward way (observant, he calls it) in which he describes these indignities makes them seem so much worse. Something as simple as a name can speak volumes about the status Africans in the colonies. Worst perhaps is the knowledge that while the revolutionaries speak of liberty, most do not intend it for the slaves who fight and die alongside them.
Yet, in the midst of this unspeakable horror (some moments so terrible that Octavian literally cannot write them), there are also moments of humour. I laughed out loud at the description of one of the philosophers who believed that things only existed when observed: he was known to run to his room, throw open the door and yell “ah-ha!”. And this is just one example of the wonderful little details that bring the characters to life.
I could talk forever about the wonders of this book. If you have any interest in history, slavery or the history of science, you should read The Pox Party. This is one of the best historical novels that I have ever read, YA or otherwise. Octavian’s story continues in Kingdom of Waves. I cannot wait to read it.
To end, I leave you with Octavian’s thoughts on the joys of reading:
By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one’s familiar walks and avenues; while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness; and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways; immobile and thus unfettered. (p. 143)
Title: The Pox Party
Series: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (1)
Author: M.T. Anderson (http://www.mt-anderson.com/)
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Year: 2008 (first printed in 2006)