The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

Charming, poignant, and utterly original, I cannot think of another novel that's quite like The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet by the multi-talented Reif Larsen. It was given to me as a gift and I knew very little about it before I started reading, aside from the fact that my flipping through its pages revealed a somewhat "illustrated" story. Perhaps "illustrated" is too specific, for The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet is more like a novel with doodles in the margins and some interesting tangents (Reif Larsen evidently calls this "exploded hyper-text), done by a truly exceptional artist that has an eye for scientific observation and precision.

T.S. Spivet lives in Montana and his full name is Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, the fifth in a line of Tecumseh Spivets, all manly men who work with their hands yet all seem to have attracted accomplished and educated wives. Even at twelve, it's clear that T.S. will never be a manly man -- he wants to be a cartographer, drawing maps and scientific illustrations as a way of mapping the world around him. (Side note here: it's to the author's credit that while reading the novel, I thought of these pieces as belonging to T.S., but clearly Larsen has incredible talent... and quite likely was a similar child to T.S. in terms of devotion to his craft.) The Spivet family originally consisted of three children; the youngest brother, Layton, was a true ranch boy and the apple of his father's eye before an accident (almost a year before the opening of the book) killed Layton and left the family silently reeling in the aftermath. So now it's just T.S. and his older sister, Gracie, left to deal with their parents: a rancher/cowboy father and a reclusive scientist mother. When not out working the land, their father seals himself in his "setting room" that features shrines to various historical figures of the West and the television constantly plays westerns. Their mother, meanwhile, has spent twenty years looking for a particular beetle, losing any chance she might have had to make her mark on the scientific community by moving on to other research. For some time now, T.S. has had a mentor named Dr. Terry Yorn who works at the University and it appears that Dr. Yorn's opinion of T.S.'s work is even beyond what T.S. could have hoped. For over a year at Dr. Yorn's encouragement, T.S. has been submitting his illustrations to various publications and a particularly detailed piece was used in an exhibit at the Smithsonian. The event that truly sets things in motion for the book is a a call that T.S. receives from a representative at the Smithsonian, informing him that Dr. Yorn nominated T.S. for the the prestigious Baird Award and he has won. The museum would like to see T.S. in Washington, D.C., in a week to accept the award and give a speech at a benefit that will feature his work. After an initial period of panic, focused mostly on the fact that the museum is unaware of his age and lack of qualifications, T.S. decides to go... and for transportation, he will "ride the rails" like hobos of old.

The book encompasses the journey T.S. takes across the country and his interior monologue that reflects upon a wide variety of items as he travels, yet constantly returns to his family and life in Montana. Whenever a book comes out with a young narrator (and the book qualifies as actual fiction/literature as opposed to being a children's or YA novel), there tends to be a good amount of fuss about the originality of the precocious young person. They all seem to have eccentric families, somewhat distant parents, and strong abilities in a scientific field. I'd argue that while T.S. and those other precocious narrators can often come out sounding the same in simple prose, T.S. really shines when speaking about his need to map the world, from sewer systems to shucking corn. The illustrations are wonderful and really serve to make T.S. a unique figure. His family is lightly sketched, but detailed enough and believable when it concerns a twelve year old boy who cannot quite grasp the complexities of his parents. Gracie is nice foil to her brother, a very "normal" teenage girl with a sharp sense of humor and a touching depth to her emotions. As for Layton, it wasn't long before I suspected his story was, clearly a bit more tragic as far as T.S. was concerned; the devotion to a younger brother can be explained by their closeness (despite their different interests) and yet one can easily tell that T.S. feels like he's doing penance or feels responsible for the loss of his brother in the way that children do when, clearly, something is not actually their fault. (Perhaps one of my favorite details from the story is the idea that T.S. has taken to inserting Layton's name into every illustration that he has done since his brother's death and sure enough, if you look closely you can see this small tribute.) Dr. Yorn hovers in the background and while it would have been nice to know more about the man so committed to T.S.'s talents, I'm glad that we were not given insight into his character at the expense of T.S.'s family. Ultimately, this is not just a story of a brilliant young boy's journey to D.C., it's the story of a grieving family that needs to re-knit itself if it is to recover.

On the whole, the book is a delight. The story is charming though T.S. can sometimes be a bit too earnest and enthusiastic. It's very easy to picture a very intelligent and loquacious child who has no problem discussing a favorite topic at great length. Of course, his prolix writing makes it easy for the reader reader to set the book down from time to time to breathe and absorb the copy and fantastic drawings. (It's actually a challenge to not think of this book after setting it down. It's been days since I've finished and I find myself thinking of it quite frequently, even in the context of "I wonder how T.S./Larsen would map this location/event/historical trajectory?") The text itself is, indeed, dense. Don't let the double-spacing and wide margins fool you into thinking that this will be a really fast read. The margin illustrations and tangential stories require the reader to shift gears a bit and spend time giving them a lengthy study. Thankfully, dotted lines indicate to the reader the appropriate time to examine those stories and drawings, but it does tack on some time to then re-enter the story once pausing for the marginalia. All this means is that you should be sure to take your time with this book -- it deserves it.

Indeed, for the illustrations alone, I suggest you should pick up this quirky and touching coming-of-age novel. Even prodigies need to still be children sometimes, aware that their parents can handle things and, more importantly, that they love their children and want what's best for them. As for children themselves, well, when adventure comes knocking it's hard to turn it down and it's amazing the things one can accomplish with dedication to one's craft and talents. The same is certainly true for the author, Reif Larsen, who is only 29 and has produced quite an impressive work. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is lovely volume with great depth and spirit, a welcome read for anyone who enjoys an original story with a charming hero.

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