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The Pox Party: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1

Review

The Pox Party: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1

At first glance, the residents of the Novanglian College of Lucidity seem harmless, if a little eccentric. They prefer to call themselves by numbers rather than by names, and are fascinated by astronomy and philosophy. Octavian has lived with the members of the college for as long as he can remember, leading a life dressed in silk, wearing powdered wigs and never worrying about the status of his next meal.  His mother Cassiopeia, a displaced African princess and the only woman at the College, is treasured by the College's scholars. She entertains them with her wit, charm and beauty. With Octavian, though, she is reluctant to speak and doesn't want to answer his many questions about her life before the start of her residence at the College.

As Octavian grows older and learns more about the world, he discovers a horrifying truth: instead of being a cherished godchild to the College, he is its science experiment. In Massachusetts, in the years just before the Revolutionary War, the College wants to prove a theory, and Octavian is their test case: Can African boys and white boys, educated in the same environment, have equal success in their educations? In some regards, Octavian becomes everything the College could have hoped for, but studying science and philosophy also makes Octavian into his own person with his own ideas, not all of which the College agrees with.

After a "pox party," a gathering in which attendees are infected with smallpox in hopes of inoculation, ends in disaster for Octavian, he runs away from his life at the College. Although he is smart and has achieved beyond what most of the College's residents thought he could, he is still considered a worthless failure. He now must make a life for himself in a place that regards him as a lesser form of life, and he cannot trust anyone.

At times, Octavian's journey through brutality and enlightenment is just as dry as the Greek fragments he is forced to read. Despite this, the picture of pre-Revolutionary War life for Africans in America is something new and fascinating. Octavian faces his own chance at independence from the College less than a year before America declares its own independence from England, and the physical fights give him the strength to hold on to who he is even in the face of what was later deemed cruel and unusual punishment. If you live for philosophy and the language of classics, this is the book for you.

Reviewed by Carlie Webber on September 12, 2006

The Pox Party: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1
by M. T. Anderson

  • Publication Date: September 12, 2006
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763624020
  • ISBN-13: 9780763624026