Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
I've been avoiding writing about this book because I don't want to use trite or over-used phrases and that was all I could come up with. Blame it on being busy, which is my favorite excuse, but I put off writing anything until I could fully wrap my head around what I wanted to say. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is unlike anything I've read before. The story, the characters, and the way it was told was so unique. Let me back up and give you a rundown.
T.S. Spivet is a twelve-year-old genius cartographer who lives on a ranch in Montana with his cowboy father and scientist mother. He has a fairly normal older sister, one who is prone to fits of drama but normal despite having an odd family. T.S. also had a younger brother, Layton, who was killed in a tragic accident and the family is still reeling from it. T.S. is short for Tecumseh Sparrow, Tecumseh being a name given to the men in his family for several generations after his first Finnish ancestor changed his name in honor of the Native American chief. His mother gave him the name Sparrow because a sparrow hit the window the moment of his birth. She had the sparrow's skeleton mounted for him and it became one of T.S.'s most valued possessions.
The story starts out a few months after Layton's death. T.S. has a mentor at a nearby college who has been submitting his work for him to scientific journals, since nobody would believe the maps and diagrams he creates could be from a kid who hadn't even hit puberty. Much to his surprise, T.S. gets a phone call from the Smithsonian awarding him the Baird fellowship for his work. He is invited to come to D.C. and accept his award and move into the rooms reserved for the fellowship. T.S. neglects to inform them that he is actually twelve years old and instead decides he's going to get himself to Washington and accept it.
The one bump in this plan is how he's going to travel two thousand miles in just a few days. After having done a unit study in school about railroad transportation, T.S. decides to ride the rails like a hobo and get himself there. The journey is absolutely crazy, starting with T.S. discovering a Winnebago being transported that conveniently has an open door. T.S. gets to ride in comfort, that is until he reaches Chicago and hits some bumps. This journey takes up a large portion of the story and the reader learns more about T.S. and his dis-functional family. I began to see more and more that though T.S. may be a genius, but he's still just a kid. He copes with the disappointment of his father and the mystery of his mother's life through his drawings. I spent most of the book wishing I could grab and hug him until his ribs squeaked.
This description so far doesn't sound all that cheery, but this book is actually really funny and tender and quirky. I laughed out loud many times. The characters are so well written that they became three-dimensional for me. There's a mystery to Dr. Clair, T.S.'s mother that you don't find out about until the end and even then, it's not totally clear what motivates her, but she's fascinating. T.S.'s dad is such a gruff person, but he's also funny and complex and surprising. In fact, the ending of the book nearly took my breath away. The characters surprised me many times, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, but they were always enjoyable to read.
What makes this book so unique is that the margins this over-sized book are filled with drawings, side stories, notes and pictures. This book wouldn't be the same without them and though it makes the story even longer to read, it was worth it. I haven't even described the whole tangential section in the middle about what Dr. Clair was up to all the years she was supposed to be studying beetles, which fit perfectly into T.S.'s journey. Oh man, there's so much to this book and I don't want to write a post that would rival the length of the book. I'd rather you read the book!
It's a pretty clean book, though there is a foul-mouthed racist trucker who gives T.S. a ride the rest of his way to D.C. But that trucker is also the most compassionate person he encounters on his journey, making sure he has enough to eat and gets some rest. I guess Larsen wanted to make every person in this book not what they seem. There are some scary moments, like when T.S. encounters a deranged homeless man in Chicago, and some intense ones like when he finally arrives at the Smithsonian. If you can get over the trucker's language, then this book is worth it, a hundred times over.
I wish there was some way to erase my memory and read this again fresh! Reif Larsen is a young guy so there's plenty of time for him to write lots more books. I look forward to future books, but it would be awesome to read this one all over again and experience it for the first time again. I guess I'll have to be satisfied with just re-reading it and knowingly chuckling to myself and anticipating what I already know to be an amazing book.