Book Quote:

“I had learned that the representation was not the real thing, but in a way this dissonance was what made it so good: the distance between the map and the territory allowed us breathing room to figure out where we stood.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Poornima Apte (JUL 05, 2009)

Twelve-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet—T.S. for short—is as quirky as his name suggests. Extraordinarily gifted, his one way of making sense of the world around him, is to map it all out. So it is that Reif Larsen’s debut, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, has many of these maps and diagrams on the margins—a glimpse into the workings of a gifted mind. Worth mentioning are maps describing the locations of McDonalds in a Midwestern town, the many physical forces acting on a rodeo cowboy and the long list of random names picked by an IBM 1401 for the soda, Tab.

As the story opens, T.S. lives in a ranch house located just north of Divide, Montana with his farmer father and his scientist mother. The boy has a mentor in Dr. Terrence Yorn, a professor of entomology at Montana State, who encourages Spivet and even submits his work to the Smithsonian for a special award. Not knowing that all the insightful work has been produced by a 12-year-old, the Smithsonian grants Spivet the award and invites him to D.C. to deliver the attendant keynote lecture.


After much back and forth, Spivet decides he will bite and take the bait. He will travel to D.C. especially because lately, he believes he doesn’t really belong in small-town Montana. So T.S. travels hobo style, hitching rides on freight cars and somehow managing to make it all the way to the nation’s capital.


T.S. is a kid plagued by many worries. For someone who is used to mapping out the world in definite, objective terms, many things don’t make sense—his parents’ marriage, for example, is one that he can’t quite figure out. “These were two creatures cut from entirely different cloths…How could these two be drawn to each other?” Larsen writes. Even as Spivet articulates these questions, he desperately wants the marriage to be alive and well.


T.S. also worries about his mother, whom he refers to as Dr. Clair. He is afraid that in her blind search for the tiger monk beetle, she has let her career slip by. In other words she has become a “stenpock.” Spivet coins this word—fashioned after one of his school teachers—for “any adult who insists on staying within the confines of his or her job title and harbors no passion for the offbeat or the incredible.”


Finally there is the one that nags at him the most—T.S. Believes that he is somehow responsible for the accidental death of his brother, Layton, in a shooting accident on the ranch. The weight of all these comes out quite often as in here: “I wanted to hold her (his mother’s) hand and apologize for taking this book, for leaving without asking her permission, for not saving Layton, for not being a better brother, or ranch hand, or scientist’s assistant. For not being a better son.”


These worries slowly play themselves out during the course of the book as T.S. finds some answers in a diary he steals from his mother’s desk just as he leaves.


Once T.S. reaches D.C. the initial thrall is soon gone when he realizes he is sought after only as a publicity machine for the advancement of the Smithsonian’s cause. “You may be the ideal instrument to draw us plenty of attention and get people all jazzed up about the Smithy again,” an official there tells him. Spivet, as it turns out, has the perfect “trident : Grief. Youth. Science.”


Author Reif Larsen has created an engaging personality in T.S. and his debut effort is very commendable. The novel is not without its faults though. For one thing, the turning points in the story depend almost on only one action—the fact that T.S. brings his mother’s diary along for the ride. There are a couple more storyline pivots that seem too forced and therefore undercut the narrative. Then there’s the slight problem that the story itself is not that complex. That Spivet would have had to travel all the way to D.C. just to realize that all that glitters is not gold, seems a bit of a drag. Even the book’s novel concept (with its many sidebars and diagrams) seems to fade after a while. Because of the sidebars, the book is also physically wider than most hardcovers so it is a little physically unwieldy.


All in all though, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a promising debut. There is no doubt that Reif Larsen is exceptionally talented—he is surely not a “stenpock.” With a touch more work on narrative, Larsen could come out with an even stronger read the next time around. And I’ll be there when he does.


The book’s major triumph is T.S. Spivet. Larsen gives his protagonist an endearing and original voice and portrays him with all his adolescent vulnerabilities. It is really hard not to fall in love with this bright and engaging companion. In the end, T.S. Spivet makes the long ride from Montana to Washington D.C. well worth the price of admission.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 31 readers
PUBLISHER: Penguin Press HC, The (May 5, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AMAZON PAGE: The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (fun site!)
EXTRAS: Excerpt     

Also, open above link for Amazon and scroll down for sample artwork.

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: This reminds me of:     

Wolf Boy by Evan Kuhlman

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlman









July 5, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Debut Novel

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