J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Coming of Age with Octavian Nothing

This month, Candlewick Press of Cambridge will publish a truly original novel about the American Revolution: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation—Volume One: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson. This first half of the saga is set in and around colonial Boston from the late 1760s through the first months of the war. (Full disclosure: Last year I vetted the manuscript for historical accuracy, so I read this book quite early, yet haven't read the final text.)

As cultural historian Michael Kammen noted in A Season of Youth, the most successful and lasting popular fiction about the American Revolution consists of coming-of-age novels: namely, Esther Forbes's Johnny Tremain and the Collier brothers' My Brother Sam Is Dead. That's not just because we study the Revolution in school, and students relate to novels about young people. It's also because our national understanding of the War for Independence is a coming-of-age story. Like the heroes in those books, the American nation supposedly woke up to its rights and responsibilities, threw off the illusions and strictures of childhood (under the "mother country"), and took its rightful place in the society of nations.

Octavian Nothing is also the story of a boy growing into a man, but Octavian's both more and less than a boy—he's precious property. At first he doesn't know that. But he comes to see that he's caught in an Enlightenment gone berserk, portrayed in full gothic style. And, as the "traitorous" subtitle hints, this is not a story of easy patriotism. Octavian feels caught between two nations, British and American, both claiming his loyalty without promising much in return.

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