The Pox Party
by M. T. Anderson
The full title of this 2006 National Book Award winner is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: the Pox Party. And before you ask, there is indeed a Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, published in 2008. Having read only a few of this author's books before this—including the campy Whales on Stilts—I wasn't expecting the emotional depth, the brutal realism, and the 18th-century prose stylings of this book.
It is a work of historical fiction set in the area around Boston in the years leading up to, and the early months of, the American Revolution. It is a hard-hitting indictment of slavery and that institution's role in the founding of our nation. It shows men and women, both black and white, ranging across the entire spectrum of attitudes about color and race, from the idealistic innocence of a continental soldier named Evidence to the reptilian cruelty of Mr. Sharpe. It portrays the period of the birth of the United States as a self-contradictory swirl of scientific discovery, social progress, mob violence, and inhuman cruelty, all driven by the self-interest of one group or another. It presents an eloquent viewpoint upon a struggle for independence driven by the sometimes paradoxical ideals of liberty and property—and the hypocrisy of a war for freedom in which slaves were forced to fight in place of their masters, often without any promise of living free afterward.
At the center of this story is a boy named Octavian, who is raised in luxury and given the finest education by the fellows of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Taught to read the classics in Greek and Latin, to play the violin with exquisite skill, and to consider himself an exiled prince by virtue of his elegant mother, Octavian does not at first realize that he is actually a slave. His African-born mother was already the bonded property of Mr. Josiah Gitney when Octavian was born, and now the boy (as he gradually learns) is the subject of an experiment. This accounts for why his upbringing, though lavish, is often also cruelly cold and lonely. Every detail of his growth and development, from the weight of his excrement to the progress of his studies, is measured and recorded in anticipation of a scholarly essay that will, one day, prove that the black man is just as capable of learning and refinement as the white.
But then the political scene shifts. Discontent with the tax-and-spend policies of the British crown brews and bubbles. A conflict approaches, in which the colonial governor will offer slaves their freedom if they betray their masters. Slave-owners, especially in the south, have a vested interest in proving that slavery is the rightful lot of black people. And for reasons I don't have space here to explain, the Novanglian College of Lucidity needs the support of those slave-owners. And so the nature of Octavian's experiment changes. His education comes under the management of a vile man named Mr. Sharpe. The care that used to be taken to teach the boy now seems devoted to keeping him from learning. Bluntly put, the game is rigged. Octavian is to be held up as proof of the inferiority of his race.
At the same time, as Mr. Gitney grows desperate to insulate his household slaves from the unrest and rumors of rebellion, he holds a "pox party" on the pretext of inoculating his servants and guests against smallpox. The outcome, tragic for Octavian personally, leads the boy to run and join the continental army, where his adventures among the early battles of the war are narrated by a fellow soldier in the form of letters to his sister—a passage of wry satire that spares not even the kindest of well-meaning people. What isn't told in Octavian's words is pieced together from the letters of other characters, and what isn't told at all can be inferred.
Octavian's recapture, extreme punishment, and second escape—this time with the connivance of one of his good-hearted tutors—exercise the reader, especially the youthful reader, in the art of picking a tale of horror, suffering, foreboding, and thrill out of old-fashioned lingo, classical references, enigmatic gaps, subtle ironies, and delicate circumlocutions. At the same time, the story is laced with grotesque surprises, graphic depictions of violence and filth, unexpected vulgarities, unapologetic passages of a very "adult" nature. Where his adventure ultimately takes Octavian, we can only tell by reading The Kingdom on the Waves. But it promises to be a dark and perilous journey, provoking serious thought about some less-than-savory details of American history. And we can also expect it to be a deeply stirring book of great literary value, more in keeping with the author of The Game of Sunken Places than Whales on Stilts.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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