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

Review

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

THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES is the second volume in M. T. Anderson's historical epic The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which is set in colonial America on the eve of the Revolutionary War. Octavian is a slave who has been raised in isolation at the College of Lucidity. In the first book, THE POX PARTY, Octavian comes to realize that he is part of an experiment on ethnicity and intelligence. After the death of his mother, he leaves the college and experiences the difficulties and hazards of living in the outside world. Recaptured, bound in chains and silenced with an iron mask, THE POX PARTY ends with one of his teacher's helping him to escape.

This follow-up begins with the two fugitives running to British-occupied Boston, where Octavian finds work in an orchestra entertaining British officers. It is not long before Boston comes under attack from the colonial rebels. When Octavian hears that Lord Dunmore is raising a troop of African soldiers, he enlists with the British on the promise that he will earn his freedom by fighting for the Crown.

Instead, Octavian learns that serving as a soldier is another kind of bondage, especially for the dark-skinned Royal Ethiopian Regiment. Consisting primarily of escaped slaves, the promise of freedom wanes as the fortunes of war turn against the British. THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES features the Revolutionary War as readers have rarely encountered it. It is a tale of desperate yearning for freedom among those who will be returned to slavery should the colonial rebels attain their goal of independence. 

The Royal Ethiopian Regiment is the first experience Octavian has spending time with a large group of his fellow slaves. They come from a variety of nations and backgrounds, and English is often the only language they share in common. He is quickly given the name 'Buckra,' "...which is their word for a white man;" Octavian writes, "for having seen me read, they say that I am a white man hidden in a black skin.... And I have just called them 'they.'"

Octavian is moved by the experiences of other men in his regiment and writes down their stories in his book. Some are funny, some poignant, but many speak to the brutality of enforced servitude. Among his companions he finds someone who is from the same Oyo nation as his mother. Before she died Octavian used to beg her to tell him "One true thing." He discovers she deliberately hid the truth about her origins to protect him, telling him instead that she was a princess and he a prince.

Other truths emerge: That freedom is not promised to the slaves of loyalist subjects, only to slaves escaped from rebels. That half the regiment is to be sold to the "Sugar Isles" --- the sugar plantations in the Caribbean where human life is so cheap that slaves are often worked to death instead of being given adequate shelter and sustenance --- to recuperate British financial losses.

Octavian's idealism disintegrates amongst the stark realities of warfare. Starvation and disease wrack the troops. He has chosen the losing side of the conflict, eventually observing, "It is a fact easily discernible that governments are instituted to commit the crimes that their citizens require for gain, but cannot countenance committing privately." When asked about the "Rights of Man," which were a big part of the revolutionary rhetoric at the time, he responds that nature recognizes no rights. "Our rights are unnatural, or we should need no government to defend them," he says. "Look abroad in the fields.... What may kill, kills; what may eat, eats. All things are born unequal and there is no low but that inequality.... The world is the house of the strong."

The strength of M. T. Anderson's work is built on Octavian's eloquent narrative voice. It reminds me of another tale, in which the creation is more eloquent than its master: Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN. Both Octavian and the creature in FRANKENSTEIN are scientific experiments and products of a classical education. Both struggle to find a place for themselves in a hostile world. Both provide a bridge from the scientific rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment to the more emotional and deeply personal world of Romanticism. Both seek the value of human life. Is the value of human life measured by its input and output, or the price it will buy at the auction block? Or is a life measured by the insight of its narrative? At the end of THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES, Octavian returns to the college where he was raised to replace the tomes detailing the weights and measures of his youth with the two-volume narrative he writes about his experiences in the world. 

This is one of the best and most difficult books I have read all year. The 18th century English the book is written in will be a challenge for some readers, as is the difficult subject matter and open-ended conclusion. In an interview with the Washington Post, Anderson defended his work and the intelligence of his readers by saying, "'It's insulting to believe that teens should have a different kind of book than an adult should....' Teens like challenges, he says. They know the world is complicated, and 'they can tell when a book is simplifying life.'"

Likewise, Anderson offers an assessment of his own work at the end of THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES:

"If this were the fantasy novel it so much resembles, there would be a third volume. In that book Octavian, Pro Bono, and Nsia would come forth from their place of hiding; they would orchestrate the desperate clash of these two great nations and engineer the toppling of both governments. There would be gargantuan, cleansing battles, and in their wake, our heroes would found a new realm. All people would be free, their shackles would fall from every wrist, and bounty would return to the land.

"But of course, this is not what happened. Instead, slavery persisted in this country for another four generations. And a full century after the general emancipation, nearly two hundred years after the Revolution, federal legislation finally ensured legal equality for black and white."

The most difficult aspect of this novel is not the artifice of fiction, but that it gives a face to facts. Lord Dunmore's Ethopian Regiment was real, as were the ethnographic studies performed to justify the unequal treatment of our fellow humans. Octavian is a character in a book, but his story speaks to the larger forces of history in which we all play a part. Closing the covers on his fate I couldn't help but reflect on how many other voices will emerge in indictment of our own times.

Anderson ends the author's note with the following:

"History is not a pageant arrayed for our delectation.

"We are all always gathered there.... We are gathered at the river, upon those shores, and the water is always moving.... Nothing will cease. Nothing will stop. We ourselves are history.

"The moment is always now."

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on October 14, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves
by M. T. Anderson

  • Publication Date: October 14, 2008
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763629502
  • ISBN-13: 9780763629502