Tuesday, January 31, 2012

T.S. Spivet

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is one of those books it is hard to tell if you will like until you actually start reading it. But even starting to read it is a bit off-putting. The book is a little oversized which also makes it heavier and rather awkward to hold. Then when you open the book you discover it has wide margins that frequently contain illustrations and diagrams and long notes with arrows pointing to them from the text. But if you can get past all of that, the book is a pretty fun read.

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, or T.S. for short, comes from a long line of Tecumseh Spivets. T.S. is a precocious twelve-year-old boy who lives on Coppertop Ranch in Montana. He is compelled to spend his time mapping everything. When he talks about maps, these aren't just maps of land or places, but also maps of actions, facial expressions, blood cells, or sounds. For T.S., a map translates the unknown into the witnessed and the known:

A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here ad there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.

T.S. is so good at mapping that his illustrations have appeared in science magazines and even at the Smithsonian. And one day, the Smithsonian calls to tell him that he has been awarded the Baird Fellowship. They do not know he is only twelve.

T.S. finds himself in a dilemma. Does he tell the man on the phone that he is twelve or does he just show up? And if he shows up, how does he get there? He doesn't feel as though he can tell his parents because he doesn't think they will understand. His father is the practical, ranch owning and working sort, the kind of man for whom physical ability is important and other things just aren't quite graspable. T.S.'s mother, Dr. Clair, is a scientist. She spends her time in search of a beetle that may or may not actually exist. There is also a teenage sister who is a pretty normal teenage girl. And there used to be a brother, Layton, a few years older than T.S., who died in a tragic accident just six months ago. T.S. feels the accident might have been his fault and in memory of his brother, hides "Layton" in all of his drawings.

T.S. decides he will just show up at the Smithsonian and tell no one. So one night he takes his suitcase and hops a freight train to Chicago. From Chicago he catches a ride with a trucker to D.C.. Of course much happens on his trip. This section of the book is also taken up with T.S. reading a notebook he stole from his mother. In the notebook he discovers the story of Emma Osterville, a precocious girl who is an ancestor of his mother's. Emma became a scientist when women scientists were few. Emma's is an interesting story but I haven't been able to satisfactorily connect it to the rest of the book.

The Smithsonian is surprised to say the least that T.S. is only twelve. But they see an opportunity to exploit his youth and run with the story, making up more and more details and taking it ever further away from the truth. How it all ends, you'll have to read it and find out for yourself.

At first the very adult voice of T.S. was rather disconcerting. Once I got used to it, I began to notice that while he talks knowingly about maps and science, he is still very much a boy who likes boy things and doesn't understand as much about the world as he thinks he does. The marginal notes and drawings turned out to be fun little side trips of their own and, I thought, didn't detract from the main story at all. The book got a little bogged down in the middle, just before he found the wormhole in the Midwest (I've been through that wormhole, it's called "Iowa"), but once on the other side and in Chicago the story picks up again and speeds on to the end.

I very much enjoyed all of the musings about mapping, what maps do, how they help us see things and make connections, how they create their very own world that isn't necessarily the same as the real world. I can honestly say I will not think of maps in the same way ever again.

Overall, the book is not amazing, but it is a very good read which has got to be worth something.

Cross-posted at So Many Books