From time to time, I am reminded why I love reviewing children's books. On those occasions, I am fortunate enough to discover works of such depth, profundity and brilliance that they would astonish my friends and acquaintances who believe I read nothing more complex than Hop on Pop. Reading M.T. Anderson's two – volume novel Octavian Nothing has certainly been one of those moments.
When we left Octavian in the first volume, he was figuratively at sea – unsure whom to trust in the wake of revelations about his origins and identity and his beloved, beautiful mother's tragic death and its aftermath. Accompanied only by his aged tutor, Dr. Trefusis, Octavian finds his way back to Boston amid some of the early skirmishes of the Revolutionary War. At first, Octavian finds employment playing his violin for the British Loyalists. This occupation, however, soon fails to satisfy Octavian, who has grown increasingly bitter amid talk of freedom and liberty – for everyone except black people like himself. "We are an army that but waits to be mustered," Octavian proclaims. "We shall join whosoever doth free us first." And join he does, when he learns of a rumor that Lord Dunmore, the exiled governor of Virginia, has promised to free any slaves who join him against the rebel forces. At first Octavian's participation in the Royal Ethiopian Regiment is frustrating. Literally at sea in the regiment's offshore location, ridiculed by the other soldiers for the very qualities – refined speech, education, love of culture – that had been the basis of his previous life, Octavian must define this new struggle for liberty, and his own place within it.
Octavian Nothing – filled with humor, insight and moments of genuine pathos and tragedy – is brimming with surprises, not least the revelations in the author's note that the book and its included historical documents are based on historical fact. This deeply moving re – imagining of a little – known episode in American history should be required reading not only for high school students of the American Revolution but, I would argue, for anyone who wants to see just what brilliance is possible in so – called children's books.
Norah Piehl is a writer and editor who lives near Boston.