About midway through his hobo journey from Divide, Montana to Washington, D. C., precocious twelve year old cartographer Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet arrives in Chicago, eyes wide at the windshield of a new Winnebago strapped to a flat car, and he recognizes that all his carefully wrought maps of the flora and fauna of his home are not the world at all.
“This is all there is, the buildings called out to me. All that is important is right here. Where you came from no longer matters. Forget it. I nodded my head. Yes – in a city like this, Montana did not seem to matter much at all.”
Straddling the gutter of both opening pages of this central chapter in Reif Larsen’s “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet” is a detailed sepia map of Chicago from the Lake to the Tri-State but highlighting its railroad tracks more than its roadways. So innovative is this first novel that Penguin paid Larsen an unheard of million dollar advance – a bet I think they are going to win.
TS lives among a ranch family whose members go their own ways. His mother – whom he calls Dr. Clair – is a PhD scientist devoting her life to the search for an obscure, perhaps fictional beetle. His father is the classic taciturn rancher who finds solace in his evening Makers Mark and old cowboy movies enjoyed in his no family allowed “Sett’ng Room.” His older sister Gracie wants nothing to do with any of them pulling the fifty foot phone cord into her “Girl-Pop lair” to complain to her friends. His older brother Layton is recently dead of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. The family dog Verywell is not very well at all since his only companion Layton died.
Any twelve year old would struggle to make sense of all this, and TS finds what understanding that he can by mapping the goings on of the place. He includes everything from a diagram of the dinner table seating (complete with absent Layton) showing conversation lines (none to his father) to a map showing the east and west water run-off paths from the peak of the neighboring Great Divide.
Not only does TS talk about his maps, but unique to Larsen’s novel, he also illustrates them with appropriate sketches and thoughts in the margins of nearly every page. This book is no subway back pocket read but is practically cookbook size; and like a good cookbook, it requires as much attention to the asides as to the narrative.
What drives Larsen’s novel are not just the endless charting, sketching, and mapping visuals, but the wonderful voice of TS: alternatively erudite with obscure facts learned from his mother, his science magazines, the Butte library, even his goofy twelve year old’s fascination with Honey Nut Cheerios or early Mac video games.
In the tradition of Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield, TS pulls the pants off adulthood and sees through the rituals and fakery of its members, be they scientists or parents. He observes that his dad’s old picture of Soapy Williams clinging to a bucking Firefly “was like looking at a good marriage” and recognizes in his mother’s no Mickey D rule that, because she had so many, “one job of a mother was to make rules and one job of a child was to follow those rules, however nonsensical they were.”
All of TS’s precocious mapmaking leads in a somewhat awkward plot twist to his winning a prestigious Baird fellowship at the Smithsonian. Unaware of his age, they invite him to Washington to give an acceptance speech and receive his grant.
Because his family considers him at best a weirdo, he decides to keep them in the dark and hop the local freight to travel East just as his ancestors may have traveled West. He loads a suitcase with eight notebooks, a GPS, two heliotropes, a theodolite, two sextants, an octant, Gillot pens, three granola bars, a bag of Cheerios, and “underwear galore” – these contents carefully listed and sketched in the margins of the narrative pages. It is this hobo journey ending in Chicago that is the overwhelming strength of the novel (and probably the justification of Larsen’s large advance); it is a great trip.
From Chicago into Washington, however, the story begins to break down. Unable to figure out the right train to continue East after being knifed by an itinerant preacher nutcase in the Chicago yards, TS gets a fast ride to the capital with a chatty truck driver.
He enters the Smithsonian and the cat is out of the bag as his hosts realize that they have anointed a kid. Larsen struggles to unwind the plot he has created. Unfortunately, he takes the narrative off in a parody of the child-genius media world, the only escape from which is through a clandestine scientific society not unlike the Freemasons of the bad National Treasure movies.
TS is on the verge of a televised meeting with the President when these Megatheriums help him escape through a secret Civil War tunnel hand in hand with his father who has suddenly come to take him back home.
The spotlight of the media and scientist buffoons makes him long to return to Montana and to realize “how lucky I was to have grown up on such a ranch, such a castle of the imagination, where hounds gnawed on the bones and the mountains sighed with the weight of the heavens on their backs.”
If my description of the second half wrap-up seems slapdash, so indeed does the second half of the book itself. However, Larsen never completely loses the inquisitive voice of TS nor does he abandon TS’s solid sidebar musings on the nature of truth whether gathered in maps, scientific journals, data, photographs, or perhaps even stories. Any weakness in plot is overcome by that unpretentious voice; we want to know what he is going to observe next.
TS himself discovers in the reading of his mother’s scientific journals that facts may not be as important as the story: “Though the unstable verifiability of the narrative made me nervous, it also kept me turning the page. I was hooked on both believing and not believing. Maybe I was becoming an adult.”
As TS escapes Washington with his father, he is no longer the “mapboy” the Smithsonian PR flacks dub him – but he is also not a mapman. He is just a kid whose journey has made him see that maps and diagrams and facts can only tell part of the truth. The rest must be left to fiction…and to the likes of Reif Larsen who takes us on a remarkable journey of our own in this ultimately very satisfying first novel.