This first historical fantasy volume in "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation" series by M.T. Anderson is published by Candlewick Press, an imprint of Walker Books.
The Pox Party is written for kids 14 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
In pre-Revolutionary America, Octavian and his mother eat the best food and wear expensive clothes. He is receiving an excellent education and is trained in the arts. They live in a house (known as the Novanglian College of Lucidity) run by scientists who theorize and conduct wild experiments, some having to do with smallpox. One day, Octavian discovers that he and his mother are one of the experiments. The scientists intend to discover whether people of African descent, like Octavian and his mother, are a distinct species from humans. After Octavian's mother's death and brutal dissection, the boy flees his captors in an effort to discover the true nature of freedom.
The book contains many references to Christianity, the Bible and God. Sizeable passages from the books of Exodus, Daniel and Psalms appear, nearly all in relation to slavery and oppression. The College of Lucidity supposedly exists to glorify the Creator, and Octavian is trained in Christianity — but those who teach him are the scientists who fail to value his freedom and humanity. Octavian is forgiving of the injustices he suffers, and he prays for the men who tormented him and his mother, as well as for others. Octavian's friend, Pvt. Evidence Goring, demonstrates a genuine Christian lifestyle (including prayer and Scripture in his letters home) and deep compassion for Octavian.
Mr. Gitney and Mr. Sharpe initially provide for the physical needs of Octavian and his mother. As soon as their experiment is jeopardized, however, the men grow hateful and torture their test subjects. Octavian's mother enjoys the admiration and attention of the scientists and generally seems only mildly interested in her own son. Only one older scientist, Dr. Tresusis, seems to respect Octavian as a person. He stealthily points out the injustices Octavian suffers and eventually puts his own life in jeopardy to help the boy escape the other scientists.
Other Belief Systems
To keep their funding, some of the researchers conclude "scientifically" that blacks are an inferior species to whites.
S--- and d--n appear once. A customs inspector is tarred and feathered. A description is included of his burns, wounds and efforts to cover his exposed pubic area. The narrative also includes bloody descriptions of war and details the gruesome atrocities committed against Octavian and his mother.
Initially, Octavian's mother is a pregnant (unwed) slave girl. The scientists sketch her nude, when she is 16, for their research. They ogle her chest and vie for her attention, which she seems to enjoy. When a wealthy man who can support the struggling College of Lucidity begins lusting after her and wants to take her as his mistress, she realizes (ala My Fair Lady) that no one actually considers her anything more than a commodity. Octavian's friend Bono agrees to help Octavian if the boy will read to him from sexually explicit texts. (A bit of the content of these is included in the narrative.)
National Book Award Winner, 2006
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Do you think what happened to Octavian could really have happened to anyone back in the time of the Revolution?
Does the idea of a "pox party" seem unrealistic?
(Note: In an interview captured at the back of the book, the author points out the historical credibility of some of the experimentation carried out on the fictional Octavian. He also mentions that pox parties* were a real happening.)
- How could the scientists in this book have been so wrong in their assumptions?
- The scientists, such as Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Gitney, talk about God and Christianity.
Does their behavior appear Christian-like to you? Explain.
- Even though Octavian is highly educated and smart, he comes to a point where he feels like a slave because of the way he is treated.
Do you think the way we're treated by others has any impact on what we accomplish in life?
How can a person overcome the prejudices of others?
- For the most part, the scientists treat Octavian's mother like a distinguished lady.
When does she realize she is still just a commodity to them?
- What does the Bible say about slavery?
How does God want Christians to respond when they witness people of different ethnicities being treated unequally?
- Why is Dr. Trefusis willing to risk his life to help Octavian escape?
- How would you feel if you walked into a secret room in your house and discovered you were the test subject in an experiment? What would you do?
- How did you feel when you read about the gruesome way Octavian's mother was treated prior to (and following) her death?
Note: During a pox party, held by the scientists, guests stay for an extended period of time — dining, dancing and mingling. When guests arrive, they are injected with the small pox virus. The idea is to create an enjoyable experience so guests will linger, while exposing the body to the virus. By doing this, scientists hoped to avoid more serious outbreaks of the disease later.
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