Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: A novel

Review by Ann Skea

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: A novel.
Reif Larsen.
Random House. 2009. 375 pp.
ISBN 9781 846 5 52786.

T.S. Spivet is a 12-year-old genius maker of maps, plans and illustrations. "I think." he tells a CNN interviewer, "we are born with a map of the entire world in our heads... the patterns are already there and I see the map in my head and then just draw it." This is a simplified version of what he tells the scientists at the Smithsonian, but they are cleverer than a CNN man trying to entertain an audience. T.S., however, is still just a child and his Selected Works are a wonderful grab-bag collection of his notes, drawings, maps and stories, as well as a vivid, funny and sometimes terrifying tale of how he came to be at the Smithsonian that night and the adventures he had getting there.

T.S. (the initials stand for "Tecumseh Sparrow," and how he came by them is a story in itself) lives with his family on a ranch in Montana. He can recite the latitude and longitude of his address to the nearest second, but he is not so certain about the thoughts and feelings of his family. His sister, Gracie, is sixteen and T.S. regards her as "the most together member of the family." She is smart, sassy, and, when the family exasperates her, is inclined to a behaviour which T.S. has labelled "Dork Retreat": i.e. she will plug in her earphones and/or retreat to her room with her music. If T.S. is the cause, he knows he can mollify her with 500 grams of chewy tape.

T.S's mother, Dr Clare, is, so he says, "a misguided coleopterist" who has spent her entire adult life studying and classifying beetles. She can't cook, is a champion blower-up of toasters, and she is "the kind of mother who would teach you the periodic table while feeding your porridge as an infant." T.S. feels close to his mother and shares some of her interests but doesn't understand her continuing obsession with finding a particular species of moth. He is much less close to his father, who is a taciturn farmer: "the sort of man who will walk into a room and say something like 'you can't bullshit a cricket', and then just leave."

No longer part of the family, but still very much a part of T.S's notebooks, is Layton, his younger brother who has only recently died in a shooting accident which none of the family will talk about and which T.S. fears may have been his fault.

T.S. makes sense of his life by charting it in diagrams, maps and plans which he keeps in the colour-coded notebooks lining the walls of his room The extent of his curiosity and the huge variety of his work is apparent in the Selected Works, where panels alongside the text show (in a random selection) detailed botanical drawings, plans for corn-shucking, stages of male pattern baldness, "My first Inertia Experiment... a disaster," his brother's rocking horse, a map of the locations of the 26 McDonalds restaurants in North Dakota, and much, much more. Some of this work has been sent by a family friend to the Smithsonian, Scientific American, Science, Discovery and Sport Illustrated for Kids, and some (in particular, his meticulous illustration of how the Bombardier Beetle mixes and expels boiling secretions from its abdomen) has been published.

T.S's Smithsonian adventure begins with a phone call from an official who tells him that he has won the prestigious Baird Award for the popular advancement of science. Unaware of T.S's age, he invites him to attend the Smithsonian's hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary celebration dinner in Washington in order to accept the award and to give a keynote address. T.S. initially declines the invitation, but after a really scary day failing to help his father free "Old Stinky," the bad-tempered goat, from some barbed wire on the farm and almost being bitten by a rattlesnake into the bargain, he changes his mind. To get to Washington, however, without talking to the Smithsonian official again and disclosing his age, is a problem. T.S. decides to make it a true adventure and, like Hanky the Hobo of a story he once heard, he decides to jump a freight train.

A large part of the Selected Works tells of T.S's adventures, some of which are terrifying. Interspersed with these, however, are extracts from a notebook which he stole from his mother's study as he was leaving. These tell the story of Emma Osterville, who married Tecumseh Tearho Spivet, T.S's great, great, grandfather.

Emma's life and her struggles to be accepted as a geologist in the conservative, male-dominated scientific world of America in the 1800s, make fascinating reading. Nevertheless, I was so taken up with T.S's adventures that I began to skip over them to find out what happened to T.S. and then came back to them later. If T.S. had drawn a plan of the way I read this book (and he did once try to map Melville's Moby Dick), it might have looked like this:


Whichever way you read this book, it is a wonderfully imaginative work of art and literature. Reif Larsen captures the spirit of a twelve-year-old boy, but also manages to tell a story, or stories, which will appeal to a many age-groups. Many of T.S's observations are very acute and very funny, although only an adult might see the humour of some of them. Larsen's publishers, too, have done him proud. The book itself is innovative and inventive and a delight. Even T.S's thanks page and Reif Larsen's own acknowledgements are worth reading, and I particularly liked T.S's additions to the publisher's information page at the front of the book—a page which only publishers, booksellers, librarians and reviewers would normally read. Added to the CIP Catalogue information is a note: "This book is about"—and a list of 27 entries, which includes "7. WHISKEY DRINKING"—"12. HOBO SIGNS"—"16. HONEY NUT CHEERIOS"—and even an entry for "MIDWESTERN WORMHOLES." That should make shelving the book in any particular section of a bookshop difficult!

This is a truly inspired, inspiring, imaginative and novel novel.


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