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Book Review: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

51ournL95WL._SL160_By Reif Larsen
The Penguin Press HC ©2009 | Hardcover 400pgs

T. S. Spivet, a 12 year old map making virtuoso, embarks on a strange, yet exciting, cross-country trek in The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet. After receiving the surprising news that he has won the Smithsonian’s coveted Baird Award, he leaves the quiet Coppertop Ranch under cover of darkness; a short farewell note stuffed in the cookie jar. His plan is to ride the rails hobo-style, from his home in Montana all the way to the gleaming streets of Washington D.C., and attend the Baird Award ceremony. Equipped with his essential cartographic tools, a few good luck charms and a mysterious notebook filched from his mother’s study, T.S. leaves behind his disjointed family. “I did not belong here,” he thought. “I was not a creature of the high country.”

The Spivet family is still reeling from the accidental death of youngest son, Layton, and all are isolated in their grief. A distant cowboy father, a distracted entomologist mother, and a sister full of teen angst give T.S. plenty of reason to hit the rails. He hops a Union Pacific freighter for the first leg of his journey, and takes refuge in an unlocked RV lashed to a platform car. As a stow-away in this yacht on wheels (affectionately christened “Valero”) the boy watches the Western landscape slide by, and begins to map his progress to D.C.

T.S. draws and diagrams almost every event in his life, and the margins of this book are peppered with his illustrations. His meticulousness and compulsive need to draw is almost Rain Man-like, and the subject matter of the maps are as unique and off-beat as the boy’s personality. Through his depictions of his father’s disapproving expression, the noise of the freight train as a sound sandwich, and brother Layton’s propensity for celebratory fist pumps, the reader gets a glimpse inside his precocious 12 year old psyche. The long hours alone on the train force T.S. into a profound self-examination. “I realized my family’s denial of Layton’s death, indeed his very existence, had nothing to do with Layton. It was a fortification that we were collectively constructing without him.” Like his father and his farm, or his mother and her beetles, T.S. uses map making to ameliorate the pain of loss.

As T.S. journeys east, his adventure takes a few surreal twists and turns and the reader is sometimes left wondering whether the boy’s encounters are part of a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. Yet, with the help (or sometimes hindrance) of a Native American transient, a belligerent sidewalk preacher and a racial-slur-spouting truck driver, T.S. arrives at the Smithsonian lobby, tired, hungry and bleeding. Gunther Jibsen, the museum’s Under-Secretary for Illustration and Design, is at first shocked by the boy’s appearance and his age. But after T.S. is patched up and cleaned up, Jibsen sees the cartographic prodigy as a publicity bonanza for the museum. Soon, he’s showing the boy off like a prized pig.

The acceptance speech that T.S. delivers at the award ceremony is at times awkward and touching. His recounting of Layton’s death is genuinely heartbreaking, and signifies the emotional and physical strain this journey has taken on him. “He was bleeding and his head was turned away from me but I could feel he wasn’t my brother anymore. He wasn’t anyone anymore‚Ķ” T.S. quickly tires of Jibsen’s exploitation and the fawning attention of Washinton’s intelligentsia. His character judgements of the people that he meets in D.C. are both childish and bitingly accurate. In the midst of Jibsen’s media blitz, T.S. realizes that his time in the Capital falls very short of his expectations, and he longs to be with his family again on Coppertop Ranch.

The ending of The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is sweet, but oddly dissatisfying. This is a novel of many digressions and tangents and the reader is left with several unanswered questions. Some tangents, like the history of the boy’s ancestor Emma Osterville are quite interesting, others like the late night meeting T.S. has with the Megatherium Club are just bizarre. Larson has effectively written a wholly original, quirky novel. Though, it may be a bit too quirky for the average reader. But for those up for a unique adventure with strange swarming birds, mysterious wormholes and one very gifted young man, this book will not disappoint.

If you liked this title, you might also like: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

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