Stories about precocious children always remind me of J. D. Salinger’s Glass family; brilliant, but victims of their own intellect. “Too smart for their own good,” T. S. Spivet’s father might say. The crotchety rancher doesn’t seem to know what to make of his twelve-year-old son and his obsession with cartography. T. S. himself doesn’t understand a great many things, such as how his biologist mother married such an earthy man, or the tragic death of his little brother. So he copes by employing his gift for mapping everything he experiences.
The maps enhance one of the most uniquely pleasurable reading experiences I can remember. It’s like an illustrated children’s story for adults, except that a child is the illustrator and narrator. Almost every other page contains digressions from the main text into the margins, where T. S. explores phenomena like the dynamics of shucking corn, the dimensions of water tables, and the finger progressions of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” But unlike many children’s stories, this one is a perilous journey, as T. S. sneaks aboard a freight train to travel from Montana to Washington, D.C., where he is due to receive an award from the Smithsonian.
As the train rumbles through the western and midwestern United States, T. S. maps his experiences along the way, as well as his memories of home. Most significant is his discovery, in a notebook swiped from his mother, of a family story she has been writing. The narrative, combined with other events, brings T. S. closer to his family than he might have been had he not embarked on this journey.
The novel was obviously a labor of love for the author and publisher in what must have been a tediously complicated layout process. Despite the tale’s occasionally offensive language, I enthusiastically recommend The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet to anyone who enjoys experiencing the world through the eyes of an endearing child.