If T.S. Spivet wants to understand something, solve a problem, capture a moment, or learn about a topic, he draws a map. Since the age of eight, he’s been mapping his life (and all the mysteries that arise in it) in his color-coded notebooks. He’s mapped his sister, Gracie, shucking corn, the location of his last will and testament, and his brother’s autopsy report. Some maps take only minutes, while others can take as long as four months.
He finds one map impossible to draw, though: the map of his father’s face. What he lacks in mapping ability in this case, he aces in words. He describes his father’s eyebrows as ‘too explosive’; his mustache as recalling ‘both the wonder and confidence one possesses when turning to confront the infinite skyline of the range at dusk’; and the time he was with his father and ‘Nothing mattered anymore. We were off the map.’
Mapping makes T.S. happy, but it makes his sister a little jealous and his father cranky and causes his mother and Dr. Yorn, his mentor, to lie. When T.S.’s portfolio is sent to the Smithsonian, he is chosen as the winner of a prestigious science award. Realizing he is never going to be a ranch hand like his father and brother, he decides to sneak out of Montana and travel to Washington, D.C. to accept his prize. The problem is that T.S. is only twelve years old.
Endlessly curious about science and history, on his trip to Washington, T.S. maps the landscape as it changes and thinks about how to solve thorny issues like the Butte water supply problem. A resourceful boy, he finds a hiding spot in a traveling Winnebago and train connection information by way of the hobo hotline number. What he packed comes in handy at times, and what he forgot to pack enough of he finds when he has the opportunity.
When he’s not drawing maps on his trip, T.S. is reading a story from the past. Found within a notebook he took from his mother, the story causes surprise at first, then frustration - surprise because he thinks it’s about his mother’s life-work, frustration because it’s missing the final pages.
Readers can linger a little longer on the pages of this book. Almost every one contains a black-and-white map, illustration, photograph or diagram; the vocabulary used when narrating T.S.’s story and the characters in it is as detail-oriented as his maps. T.S.’s brother, Layton, their father, T.E. Spivet, and Stinky, the family’s goat, became favorites of mine.
Divided into three parts, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet may take a little longer to read because of the notations in the margins, but I enjoyed the way the author uses his imagination and I felt privileged to see the world through T.S.’s wide-open eyes.
Author Reif Larsen has worked as a professor and a filmmaker. He graduated from Columbia University with a MFA in fiction. He lives in New York.