Thursday, July 23, 2009
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is 12 years old and a genius cartographer – two words you don’t often see together. T.S. is a master observer of the world around him. The boy “maps” his life, but these are usually not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill maps, like you use on a car trip or in the mall when you’re looking for the ice cream store. He maps his dad drinking whiskey, with a key for short sips and long sips; he maps how his mother met his father; he maps how to use your hands to play “Itsy Bitsy Spider”; he maps the evolution of the length of shorts from 1980-2007; he maps faces and hands and bones and the wings of cicadas. He also maps how the “patterns of cross-talk” dramatically changed around the family dinner table after his younger brother, Layton, died from a somewhat mysterious accidentally shooting. Lucky for us Larsen did not just write this book, he drew all of these maps, which fill the book throughout as marginalia. The drawings are worth the price of the book alone.
T.S. lives on his family’s Coppertop Ranch in Montana. His father is a Cowboy (with as big “c”) and his mother is a scientist. While T.S. is the creative intellectual of the family, wanting nothing to do with ranching, his brother Layton is the child–Cowboy, joined at the hip (or the horse) with their dad. But Layton is dead and T.S. and his dad hardly exchange a word. In fact, no one in the family ever mentions Layton, so T.S. writes (and draws) about his brother, and slowly, their family story emerges like a map of life.
T.S. is famous. At least in the world of science. For years he’s been doing drawings and maps for publications and more importantly, the Smithsonian Museum, which has given him a prestigious award. They have no idea he’s only twelve. Thinking he’s an adult -- you need to give Larsen a bit of literary license here -- they invite him to come to Washington and make a speech and work for a year. T.S. has never been to the east coast, is deeply enamored with the Smithsonian, and sees the offer as a perfect way to escape the pain of his family’s silence. So T.S. takes off. Hops a freight train and maps his journeys, both external and internal.
In some ways T.S. Spivet is a work of brilliant art. It can open your eyes to the wonders of observing the world around you, from an atom to a tree to a conversation to the solar system, as well as to science and history, and seeing (and drawing) connections from the past to the present, and how the world works. I loved this book -- but unfortunately, the freight train of my love started to hit the brakes about three-quarters into the book, and soon those brakes were slammed to an ear-piercing squeal as his story leaves the drama of his family and his inner journey, and enters some secret society at the Smithsonian and wormholes in the Midwest. You read that right. This is not a situation where I simply did not like the ending of a book. Larsen has vast talent, but he really needed to rethink the last quarter of his story.
Is it worth reading? Absolutely. Take this journey of maps and cross-country travel and be fascinated. Read it to the end, but ignore the end. Focus on how this character makes sense of the world by drawing it, and his passion for seeing and thinking and tinkering with a notebook and a pencil. Maybe when you go out to eat you will grab a napkin and draw a map of your own.