Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves

by M.T. Anderson
It's easy, from our vantage point, to see the American Revolution as a good thing. Even as we look cynically at the mythology of high-school history classes, it's hard to argue with the Declaration of Independence. And Anderson didn't write the two Octavian Nothing novels to convince us otherwise. But he does such a good job taking us back into that time, and in the body of a young black man, that we are forced to think again.

As we learned in the first book, Octavian is a slave raised by Boston scientists in the 1760s and 1770s. I won't go into details about the end of the first book, but the second book picks up soon after, with Octavian and Trefusis making their way back to Boston, which is now under siege by the Rebels. When Octavian hears of the Governor of Virginia offering liberty to all escaped slaves, he knows he may never see an offer like this again. Of course, the Governor is no longer held in high esteem by many Virginians, and is forced to live, with his troops (black and white) and wealthy Loyalist colonists, off the shore of Norfolk, in their flotilla of ships, gradually running short of supplies. Would Octavian have been better off fighting on the side of American Liberty? Not likely; the punishment for escaped slaves was often barbaric. Octavian runs into some friends, new and old, and everyone has a story to tell about their journey to freedom. Octavian's story gives us an angle on the Revolutionary War few of us know much about. And Octavian Nothing is a fascinating character, both of his time and alienated from it.

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