You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, Reif Larsen has created a novel with a unique blended form. The text is augmented with the drawings and comments of the narrator, a twelve-year-old boy named Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, or T. S. The boy is a mapmaker whose interests go beyond geology and geography: he maps his whole life out as a way to organize his life and create order. With all the illustrations and diagrams, the book is a sort of graphic novel in novel form.

T. S. Spivet lives on a Montana ranch near the Continental Divide with his parents and older sister. His mother is a studious scientist in search of a mysterious insect; his father is a taciturn rancher whom T. S. doesn't feel much of a connection with. Months before the story starts, the youngest brother Layton accidentally killed himself with one of his guns while he and T. S. were mapping out sound waves. When T. S. gets a call from the Smithsonian announcing that he has won an award and a year-long fellowship, he decides to sneak away and travel to Washington by train, hoping that his young age will not be an impediment once they find out.

T. S. hops a train near his home and finds a Winnebago to travel in. He discovers that his mother's notebook that he has swiped contains a story she has been writing about the life of another woman, his ancestor Emma Osterville, a scientist who married the first Spivet man in the mid-1800's. He can see parallels between this ancestor and his own mother, who both struggled to prove themselves as scientists then gave up their profession to be wives and mothers.

When T. S. gets off the train in Chicago, he gets into some trouble in the trainyard and is attacked by a crazed man. He escapes with a wound to his chest and finds a truck driver to drive him to Washington. When he arrives at the Smithsonian, the man who called him, Jibsen, gets him medical attention then pursues his own agenda. Jibsen turns out to be a poor substitute father figure, pushing T. S. to get as much media attention as possible and completely buying into his story about his dead parents. T. S. finds members of the Megatherium Club, a sort of secret society of young explorers and scientists. Strangely, the members of the club include Dr. Yorn, the professor who sent T. S.'s drawings to the Smithsonian, and the club seems to be fully knowledgeable about his travels. In the final scene, when things can't get any stranger, T. S.'s father shows up to replace Jibsen and take his son home, and T. S. is suddenly grateful to see his father, and feels a strong connection to him for the first time.

This is an intriguing adventure story with a fascinating level of detail. T. S. has a great grasp of the world and is very perceptive with the maps that he creates. Sometimes it is clear that he is not only more perceptive than an average twelve-year-old boy but more perceptive that a twelve-year-old boy can be. At these times the author's voice peeks through. He is too fully aware of relationships, including between his mother and father, even if it is an important point to make about the story. Such are the pitfalls of having a preteen narrator.

The story within a story (of T. S.'s great great grandmother) is informative on many levels, not the least of which is his mother's imaginings of what that life was like and T. S.'s comparisons of that life to his mother's life. T. S.'s maps and charts are helpful to illustrate his own life as well as the outside world. The story of Layton's death comes together in pieces as T. S. talks about different aspects to it. There is a clear contrast between the analytical T. S. and his mother as opposed to his father who is more of a doer and less of a thinker. Yet they are all emotionally stunted. Only the older sister shows any signs of having an emotional life inside. But T. S.'s character shines through as a quiet scientist. B+

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