rating: 5 of 5 stars
The action of Volume I: The Pox Party is summed up neatly in a broadside, allowing the plot of Volume II to stand on its own. The emotional content of this book, though, is probably better understood in light of the first book, but there’s enough going on here to completely occupy the reader.
Octavian, as a character, is a fascinating outsider in the world he occupies. He has the education of a well-to-do white man, he was raised as an object of scientific inquiry, but he also witnessed his mother’s horrific death and suffered his own indignities at the hands of Mr. Gitney and Mr. Sharpe. In some ways he is mature beyond his years, but he can’t bring himself to speak to a girl he admires. He is seen as a slave by most white men, both Royalist and revolutionary. He is seen as a pampered boy by many of his fellow former slaves in Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian regiment. At times he brings a sense of history and philosophy to his situation, and at other times he is overcome by the world around him.
Not only is Octavian a fascinating character, but so are others around him. It’s an overwhelming example of historical fiction – overwhelming because it does not seem to impose our present day understanding on historical figures, but instead shows them as they were understood at the time. Both sides care only for the slaves in as far as they can further their cause. Nothing is glamorized or glorified. The language is amazing – and was the source, along with the character of Pro Bono, of a lot of the humor of the book. “I don’t cut so excellent a figure when I’m vomiting,” says Bono (or Private William Williams, as he is now known). “I bend from the waist, and it interrupts the line of beauty.”
At times the book is a delight to read – and at other times an agony. There’s action, and introspection, and views on the story from plenty of characters. We read Octavian’s testimony, his diary, letters between various characters, and the occasional document from real historical sources. “Sweet mercy in a firkin,” as Bono would say, this is a book worth reading. My own words can’t do it justice.
While it’s not an easy read, teens interested in realistic historical fiction or classics would find this a pleasant challenge. It is, at heart, an unusual coming of age story, concerned with an aspect of history that isn’t covered enough in school.