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Reif Larsen: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

This book received an advance of nearly $1 million, a sum unheard off for a first novel by an unknown author. Is it worth it? The answer is easy. No. It is a very clever book and well thought out but, ultimately, it is the standard story of a boy who shows the grown-ups how it’s done, despite having the inevitable difficulties navigating the adult world but, in the end, finds family is best. Aaaahh! The cleverness and originality of the novel is that the hero – T S Spivet (as the title clearly tells us) – is, to use a term coined later in the book, a mapboy. In other words he draws maps. Not only does he draw maps of standard geographical features but special maps such as one of the movements of the hands of his sister as she plays cat’s cradle or the continental divide as a fractal or the water flow near his father’s ranch. Not only does he draws maps, he draws insects (his mother is a coleopterist), items he sees in and around his house and on his travels and anything else that comes into his mind. The beauty of this book is that Larsen gives us all of these maps and drawings, which appear in the margins with dotted lines linking them to the text.

T(ecumseh) S(parrow) Spivet is a twelve year old boy. He lives on a ranch on Montana with his father, his mother, whom he calls Dr. Clair, the coleopterist, his older sister, Gracie, and his younger brother, Layton. Dr. Clair has given up what seems a promising career to track the elusive and quite likely non-existent tiger monk beetle, Cicindela nosferatie. However, as T S will learn during the course of the book, there is more to his mother than he realises. His father, a taciturn rancher who loves Westerns, is somewhat remote and gets on better with his practical son, Layton, than with his scientist son, T S. Gracie dreams only of what standard stereotypical young women of her age dream of – getting away from home and going to Hollywood. Layton is like his father but less taciturn. He likes the outdoor, cowboy life and likes watching Westerns. However, he and T S more or less get on. T S is so named because every Spivet generation has a male child called Tecumseh. When he was born, a sparrow flew into the window of the house and was killed. The skeleton has been preserved and the event recorded in T S’s name.

T S’s maps are so good that the Smithsonian Institution uses them, through the intermediary of Dr. Yorn, a scientist with whom he has come into contact. At the start of the novel, the Smithsonian is so impressed that they have decided to give him the (fictitious) Baird Award for the popular advancement of science (named after the real Spencer F Baird), for his drawings, particularly his drawing of how the bombardier beetle mixes and expels boiling secretions from its abdomen. T S does not feel that he can tell his parents but decides that he does wish to go to Washington to get his award and make a speech. Mr. Jibsen from the Smithsonian, who has only spoken to him on the phone, is, of course, under the impression that T S is an adult with a doctorate, partially led on by Dr. Yorn. Though he has some money, he has no easy way to get to Washington, particularly in only a few days, not least because he is still at school. Things are going on with his parents – we learn what some of them are – so they do not really notice what is happening (or, at least, we think that they do not) so T S slips out of the house early one morning, taking with him one of his mother’s notebooks, and jumps a freight train going East. He has romantic notions about hobos riding trains and some (but not all) of these are realised on his journey. Much of the book is taken up with his journey which both produces lots of speculations and lots of resulting maps, drawing and diagrams but also with his reading his mother’s notebook, where he learns a lot about his mother and his family, of which he was previously unaware.

The story is well told, both the journey and what happens afterwards, with danger facing T S, his not unexpected reception, his mea culpa and even secret cabals, all ending sweetly with a reaffirmation of family values. But it is not the story that makes this book but, rather, the character of T S and, in particular, his maps and drawings. His marginal notes, with their drawings, maps and diagrams, are full of interesting asides about a variety of fascinating topics and you cannot help but be educated by them. But, overall, as a novel, while it is certainly good reading, I am not sure that it is really worth nearly $1 million.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Penguin Press