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Anderson, M.T. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2008.

I have just finished the second and final part of M.T. Anderson's magnum opus. I do not think it is possible to praise this book highly enough, although I do think that this book is a headier vintage than the volume that preceded it, The Pox Party. I'm not sure which is the "better" novel, as they are quite different in many respects, but I am getting ahead of myself.

In brief, Octavian Gitney, who takes the surname Nothing, having discovered that he is a slave and killed his master, escapes with his tutor back to his besieged home city and flees thence to take up arms with the forces of the King, one of the royal governors having pledged freedom to all slaves who will fight in His Majesty's cause against the slave-holding rebels, who prate of the rights of man while holding their fellow men in thraldom.

It sounds like a fantasy novel, doesn't it? Indeed, I confess that I thought the books were fantasy when I began the first volume, and part of the sheer dark genius of that book is the slow dawning of the knowledge that it is not a fantastical realm, but Boston, and not just an alternate Boston, but our Boston, and that Octavian is not only black, but a slave--indeed, in recollection the book reads like a fever dream, notwithstanding Octavian's labouring to build the trenches that will be whelmed by royalist forces on Bunker Hill. Having learned what he is in The Pox Party, Octavian spends The Kingdom on the Waves trying to puzzle out who he is, and his place in the world, questions that are never easy for any one and which are all the more difficult for a young black man fighting for Britain in America on the eve of its independence, to say nothing of the fact that the British officers are interested in strategy, rather than principle, and there is no truly safe haven to be found. The Kingdom on the Waves is a grim, depressing, utterly necessary and fiercely honest book, not sparing of unpleasant realities above and beyond the sheer, utter misery of slavery. My sister read a paragraph over my shoulder and exclaimed about "What sort of horrible book are you reading?" not without cause. Academics and historians point out that the American population of slaves was the only one in history to actually increase over time, as if this ameliorated the circumstances; of course it does not, for all that slavery in America was a life of bondage, whereas in the Sugar Isles it was a death sentence.

I remember in seventh grade we read a book called Johnny Tremaine, about a young white boy in Boston who joins the rebel cause and whose biggest problems are that he has a bum hand and a middle name. If I could work my will, I would have everyone in America read the first book of Octavian's story--it won, with utter justification, the National Book Award--because I think that the history of the Revolution has been far too one-sided for far too long. True, the tour guides at Independence Hall remind people that the Declaration of Independence made no mention of slaves, and that the Constitution counted them as three-fifths of a person, but that is not the same thing at all as the force of literature, which Anderson's book possess to the utmost. It is easy to either be fixated upon or to ignore the past, to the detriment of the present and the future, but there must be a reckoning, an open acknowledgment of the fact that the freedoms and the liberty we enjoy today arose out of the oppression of an Other people and the destruction of the natives whose land the colonists stole. It was not our "fault," but we are the inheritors of those men, for all that they would be horrified at the majority of us, and we have a responsibility to ourselves and to posterity to make our peace with it, as best we can, or if we cannot make peace at least to be conscious of our founding hypocrisies, and the havoc they continue to wreak.

At least the tortoise made out all right.

More seriously, Anderson notes in his afterword two interesting things: the first, that in the Revolution the idea of "liberty" became empty of all real meaning, since it was claimed by all sides to no consistent definition, and that the Republic would not have survived the War of 1812 had it not been slave-holding and despoiling of Native Americans' land. It's the second assertion that is dismally correct, in my judgment, and there it is. Since Octavian's story ends blankly, I will end with a quotation from Anderson's afterword: 

Yes, our Revolutionary forefathers espoused a vexed and even contradictory view of liberty. But it is easy to condemn the dead for their mistakes. Hindsight is cheap, and the dead can't argue. It is harder to examine our own actions and to ask what abuses we commit, what conspicuous cruelties we allow to afford our luxuries, which of our deeds will be condemned by our children's children when they look back upon us. We, too, are making decisions. We, too, have our hypocrisies, our systems of shame.

I'm not sure I could have finished this book before last November 5th, but I think that in the age of Obama it has become even more vital. Go forth and read.