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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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Revolutionary Novel Up for National Book Award

M. T. Anderson's novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation—Volume One: The Pox Party has been nominated for a National Book Award. This volume is set in eastern Massachusetts, starting a few years before the Revolutionary War and ending a couple of months into the fighting.
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Anderson's done a number of interviews in conjunction with the book's release, despite being in Nepal. The most lively (so far) was with a Bay Area blog called Not Your Mother's Book Club. Anderson, who grew up here in Middlesex County, describes his inspiration this way:

One time I was watching a historical recreation of that first morning of battle. Lines of redcoats were advancing – never mind the myth about this seeming somehow inept, it is and was completely terrifying – the brilliance of the scarlet coats – the bewildering smoke – their war-scream as they charge with their bayonets … Anyway, I was watching a battle recreation, and watching the awful approach of the redcoats, and suddenly, I thought, My God. If this were this morning two hundred and twenty-five years ago, I’d really be standing here confronting them. I’d be holding my fowling-piece or a rake, facing the most powerful army in the world.
So all you folks out reenacting for us on Battle Road in 2000, you bear some responsibility for this book!

More choice excerpts:
Over the eight years of the Revolutionary war, roughly 4,400 were killed in battle; 6,200 were wounded; and 60,000 – yes, sixty thousand – died from starvation or diseases such as smallpox and dysentery. That final statistic is astounding to me. I believe I am right in saying that more died of dysentery alone than died in battle. We look back on the Revolution and see chiseled men in wigs struggling heroically, illuminated by shafts of celestial light. In fact, this war was long and terrible and full of desperate, senseless, ugly deaths. The wretchedness of the conditions under which it was fought only highlights the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought in it.
And for those young not-mothers in the book club:
...can I make a recommendation specifically to fans of Jane Austen? There is an American girl, Sarah (Sally) Wister, who left an absolutely incredible letter-journal of her time during the Revolution. It is amazing.

She’s this sixteen-year-old sent off into the countryside because the British have taken Philadelphia. She’s staying with her aunt and uncle, as I remember it. And suddenly one day, this Patriot regiment shows up at their door and says they’ll be housing several of the young officers in her house. You can almost see Sally and her cousin’s eyes sliding sideways toward each other.

What follows is an absolutely phenomenal real-life novella as the two meet the officers, flirt, try to understand these men, develop crushes on some, note down their weird habits, play pranks on them, and finally, in the end, try to deal with the death of some of them in battle.

Sally Wister’s ear for dialogue is simply amazing. Her ability to sketch character through observation is incredible. I feel securely that if she had decided to write a novel, she would have been our first great American novelist.
The Foundation for Children's Books will host a conversation with Anderson about Octavian Nothing and his earlier books on 24 October at Boston College. That starts at 7:30 PM in Vanderslice Hall. It costs $15 at the door if you're not an FCB member, $5 if you're a college student with ID. I expect he'll be back from Nepal by then.

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