This young adult (YA) text is a fantastic work of art. It is heart-wrenching and honest in its brutality; it is insightful in its beautifully woven commentary on an American slave society; it is historically accurate while firmly planted in a fictional landscape; and it is moving and rewarding—but not a book for grades 9 and up, as it is advertised. The last 50 pages were especially beautiful. Adults and motivated students alike should read this book.
This book stars Octavian, also known as Prince. Octavian is a slave, a human experiment, a child-prodigy, and our narrator—a Revolutionary War-era tour guide, and the protagonist. He is an excellent person and one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking characters I have ever read about. Octavian teaches the readers about music (he is a well-regarded Violinist), race relations, philosophy, Small Pox, isolation, and ultimately and most importantly, about both the beauty and the ugliness of the human spirit. This ugliness comes from many characters in the book, but none more than Mr. Sharpe, the antagonist.
Until Mr. Sharpe presents himself, Octavian’s white masters treat him well, considering his status is as a slave and a social experiment. They love him and educate him and treat him almost like a son. Then Mr. Sharpe appears halfway through the novel and changes everything. He does not approve of the way Octavian has been treated, and proceeds to take over the experiments and turn Octavian into a bitter, emotionally abused, battered and beaten, unappreciated and unloved slave of the worst kind. Mr. Sharpe is a victimizer, ignorant, and an emotionally shallow white 18th century racist bigot. He intentionally and systematically turns Octavian from a perfect piece of art into a shell of a human being.
This novel should be read by advanced students only—otherwise it may prove to be a waste of time trying to teach it to anybody in grades nine and up. It is a very difficult book—the vocabulary is very advanced. Also, it moves slowly at times, so any student who doesn’t lose interest after encountering indecipherable words may lose interest due to lengthy, challenging paragraphs.
If you’re interested in history, especially the Revolutionary War era and the history of slavery, this book will interest you; you must be interested in the historical context to want to engage fully with this book. For an even fuller grasp, one may pair it with any number of slave narratives—such as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of a Slave or Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. As in those works, a reader who has never been caged, shackled, or threatened with a hanging will find reasons to live life and never take freedom for granted again.
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