Anderson’s writing moves from satire to realism, and from gothic fantasy to factual history, in ways that can jar and disturb the reader.
But still he manages to generate a mood that reflects the unsettled early years of the American Revolution. A Pox Party is a medical procedure – a primitive form of vaccination. A group of people shut themselves in a house where they infect each other with bits of skin taken from the sores of smallpox sufferers. But this is before scientists knew how to weaken the bacteria, so many will contract the full-blown disease and some will die.
Octavian Gitney is an African American who spends his childhood with his mother, Cassiopeia, in a Boston mansion. A group of scholars, called the Novanglian College of Lucidity, make him the subject of a long-term study. “… you are the experiment… We are providing you with an education equal to any of the princes of Europe. We wish to divine whether you are a separate and distinct species. Thus, we wish to determine your capacity as an African prince, for the acquisition of the noble arts and sciences.” This is Mr. 0301’s answer when Octavian asks the reason for “their work with me”. Their enthusiasm for the principles of the Age of Reason is so great they call each other by numbers rather than names. After some thought, Octavian makes a decision. “… I resolved thus, I would not fail 0301. I would not fail my mother. I would prove the superior excellence of my faculties. From that day my studies took on a new intensity. And I played the violin like a very devil.”
His mother, an African tribal princess, was captured when pregnant and presumably they were purchased as slaves. Strangely, the collegians gave their African guests ancient Greek and Roman names, the custom for household slaves in the South. One would have thought the experiment might produce a more positive result had they been named John and Abigail.
Written as a personal narrative, along with fictionalized newspaper clippings, the era is brought to life in both tone and attitude. Way too much attitude. With archaic language, the pretentiousness of 18th century English gentry is very well portrayed. But surprisingly, these snobs are not much worse than Octavian’s mother. She is deeply concerned about the honor her position in tribal royalty ought to accord her, and this leads to tragic results for the College and Octavian. The experiment comes to a halt and the property falls into the hands of Southern slave-owners. As political unrest in the colonies grow, Octavian gains a greater awareness of what it means to be a slave. Armed with his new understanding, he rapidly achieves 21st century political correctness and wisdom beyond that of the Founding Fathers. “…when the King’s ministers demanded that the colonies pay for the costs of the Indian and French wars… wherein the armies of our nation had fought… to secure our borders from, as they said, the incursions of savagery, I had no memory of the conflicts and no property with which to pay, and so, taxation or no, seemed all the same to me.”
The last third of the book moves from Octavian’s first person voice to his handwritten journal and a series of letters from individuals in the Boston area. They are letters from people we do not know, to other people we do not know, and are full archaic spellings and colloquialisms. It is a relief when Octavian resumes to his role as narrator at the end of the book.
Anderson’s historical errors tend to discredit the forces that strive for democracy and civil rights. When a British official is tarred and feathered, Anderson writes, “the Customs Inspector made some enfeebled attempt to roll away from the blows, but was hindered in his retreat by the extreme pain of his burns from the tar.” Anderson would not have had to read many history books to learn that they did not use modern roofing tar, but rather a tar that was syrupy at room temperature and used primarily as a wood preservative. The goal of this punishment was to persuade the inspector to resign, not to create a martyr by killing him with severe burns.
Despite the occasional misrepresentation and a demanding writing style, The Pox Party is powerful novel that can still resonate with contemporary readers. Just as relevant in today’s world are the issues of human rights, free will, racism, the causes of war, and one person's struggle to find his place.
First in the Octavian Nothing Series.
Violence. Mildly disturbing content. P.C.
Available in audiobook format.
M. T. Anderson’s webpage. (click here)