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a monthly column by A.C.E. Bauer

March 2007
The side of the angels: A review of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing and Amazing Grace
by A.C.E. Bauer

I approached M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation with some trepidation. I had been told that the subject of the book was unsettling. I had read Feed, and seen how Anderson delivered darkness with riveting prose. So when I began reading, I wasn’t surprised to find that the book was unrelentingly grim. The moments of lightness were always overshadowed by the looming horror that permeated the action. I thought, more than once, how hard the story was to read. And, I also wondered, why it was so hard to put down.

“I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.”

Thus begins the tale of a boy raised by rational philosophers who call themselves the Novanglian College of Lucidity. They conduct their lives in search of Knowledge, and have decided to see what would happen if a boy of African decent is given the education of a European prince. The backdrop is Boston, a few years before the American Revolution. The boy, Octavian, is a slave.

The philosophers work under the principle that rational thought is of utmost importance, and sentiment clouds judgment. As a result, they can be cruel — engaging in vivisection, dropping a cat from different heights to see at what point the animal can no longer catch itself and breaks, slowly administering poison to a dog to find the minimum dose necessary to kill it, experimenting on a mute child and beating her to severe injury when the experiment does not go as planned.

But they do not stint on Octavian’s education. He is taught to read, write, play the violin, draw, and to understand Latin and Greek. He is introduced to mathematics by being shown how to weigh his own urine and feces, and how to subtract that measure from the weight of the food he has ingested—so that the philosophers can measure how much his food is used for other purposes. His subjects of study include classical literature, biology, and all matter of science as it is understood at the time. And, he is observant.

As Octavian grows, his status becomes more and more galling to him. The Novanglian College faces financial woes, and his slavery bites him harder. Eventually, the philosophers manage to push him over the edge when they conduct a final horrific experiment, the details of which I would rather not give away. Suffice to say that Octavian’s world, as he knew it, must come to an end, and the confines of the College give way to the world of Revolutionary America where patriots claim liberty for all, especially for property owners who wish to keep their slaves.

This is a perspective you don’t often see in literature: the Revolutionary War from the point of view of slaves.1 The colonists fought because Britain hampered their economic interests. Freedom, to them, meant not having to pay taxes to the crown, or abiding by British parliamentary decrees that worked badly on a continent thousands of miles away. They maintained a rapacious desire for land and saw England as tying their hands when it came to expansion. As England cracked down on its mutinous subjects, it abused individual freedoms, feeding the patriots’ growing battle cries. But those abuses were not the root causes of the Revolution. And individual freedom meant freedom for property owners.

The novel brought this home in such a shocking and powerful way that it made me wonder: who, in this battle for freedom, was on the side of the angels?

I had almost finished the book when I went to see Amazing Grace, the recent movie directed by Michael Apted that recounts the British MP William Wilberforce’s struggle to end the slave trade. Set at about the same time in history as the novel, it shows a point of view equally unfamiliar to Americans: abolitionist efforts in England that were more successful than their American counterparts, despite the strong economic interests English power brokers had in slavery—being the basis for a large proportion of the Empire’s wealth.

The movie touches upon the contributions of abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, Hannah More, and James Ramsay, and on the remarkable public campaign—unheard of, and quasi-treasonous at the time—that brought ordinary people to boycott slave sugar and sign petitions. And although the movie describes the ghastliness of the slave trade, it doesn’t provide the visceral horror that M. T. Anderson delivers. Ultimately, its attraction comes from watching the beautiful Ioan Gruffud as Wilberforce and Romola Garai as Barbara Spooner (his wife-to-be) being noble and good.

I admit that I enjoyed the show. It was an easy introduction to an important character in history who, in my readings, was only a footnote, if I read about him at all. The story’s sugar coating was light, and fabulous actors provided stellar performances of both savory and less savory characters. But perhaps, more important to me, that coupled with M. T. Anderson’s book, the movie made me rethink a moment in history.

In school I was taught North American history as a manifest destiny: Europeans arrived, brought culture and wealth, and yes, there were some mistakes, but ultimately these were addressed, and all was for the good. When England hampered that progress, wise, freedom-loving patriots fought the greatest army on earth, and, as it should be, won. Slavery was ultimately defeated within America. The lands prospered. People now had freedom.

I have read and seen a great deal since those initial history lessons, and they no longer form the bedrock of my understanding. Still, they color my view of the world. As good fiction does, both Octavian Nothing and Amazing Grace made me think about those premises, rework them again, and wonder where the truth lies, all the while reminding me how slavery is a great evil, and that I should never forget it.

Quotation from The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation; Volume I: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson. Copyright © 2006 by M. T. Anderson

1. In the book Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, Brian Schama wrote a history of what happened to slaves during the American Revolution.  For those who escaped, he tracked their flight from owners, enlistment in the British army, service during the war, and long sought redress once the war was over. Published the same year as Anderson’s novel, it makes me wonder at the convergence of thought by disparate people about the same subject.



A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry in college, and then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories for all ages. Her novel, NO CASTLES HERE, will be published by Random House Children’s Books in autumn 2007.

Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a lake in Quebec. You can read more of her musings at, a community blog of children’s-books authors whose debut novels will be published in 2007.

In the Rabbit Hole began in December 2005
The bike, the fly, the turn of the page — an appreciation
Bullies in the blog playground
The lowly potato
A list
Copyright won't give you an hourly wage
How to ruin TV
A love story
Breathing water and pine
"It's just a children's book"
Reconciling to the Impossible
Write to A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com

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"The side of the angels: A review of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
and Amazing Grace"
copyright © March 2007 by A.C.E. Bauer.
This essay appears here with thanks to A.C.E. Bauer, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2007