Mapping out the life of a young prodigy

By Nan Goldberg
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2009
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This is a beautiful book. Each page is literally a work of art: thick, generously sized, decorated with pen and ink drawings that dance down the margins, illustrating the story's charming footnotes (sidenotes, really).

The premise of "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet" is lovely, too: T.S. is a 12-year-old cartographer-artist, a prodigy who lives on a Montana farm. But in other ways he's just a boy with a preoccupied scientist mother; a distant, cowboy father; an adolescent sister, Gracie; and a younger brother, Layton, who recently shot himself to death in the barn during one of T.S.'s experiments.

T.S. doesn't only map places. He tries to map everything: the five varieties of Gracie's frequent boredom; the novel "Moby-Dick"; the exact components of the magnetic pull of McDonald's on 12-year-old boys; his father's expressions.

Why does he map compulsively? "Something about measuring the distance between here and there cast off the mystery of what lay between, and since I was a child with limited empirical evidence, the unknown of what might just lie between here and there could be terrifying. I, like most children, had never been there. I had barely even been here."

T.S.'s more conventional maps and illustrations have been published in Science magazine and displayed at the Smithsonian, and as the story opens, T.S. receives a phone call from the institution, telling him he has won a prestigious award and inviting him to Washington, D.C., to give a speech.

The catch is that no one at the Smithsonian is aware that he's a child, and T.S.'s family doesn't know he publishes his work.

In the middle of the night, with a few dollars in his pocket and a package of food, he hops a train to get his prize. Eventually he reaches Washington, but much of the novel is the journey, during which his adventures include passing through a "wormhole" (where everything disappears into a vacuum) in Nebraska, his first sight of a metropolis, a knife fight with a religious fanatic in Chicago, hitchhiking from there to Washington with a bleeding knife wound in his chest, and being recruited by a secret organization that wants to take down the government.

Fortunately, you don't read this novel for its plot.

Then why do you read it? For its originality and charm. For moments like this, when the child, so clearly a child all of a sudden, is trapped in his seat during a banal speech at the Smithsonian dinner: "After only a minute of this, I wanted to see if I could flick a limp carrot stick into my wineglass."

For his description of the sound of an approaching train: "There was the noxious call of metal scraping against metal, like two cymbals rubbed together very quickly . . . conjuring a high-pitched hizzleshimsizzleshim-hizzletimslizzlelim."

But mostly, you read "The Selected Works" to follow T.S.'s other journey, the philosophical and emotional journey he doesn't even know he's undertaking when he sets out alone for Washington.

When does a child become an adult, he wonders at one point. Why are so many people lonely, and how did T.S. become one of them? How come no one in the family talks about Layton anymore? Was he to blame for Layton's death?

Some things, T.S. realizes, cannot be mapped, and they include many of the most crucial things.

The reader, on the other hand, realizes that a young boy's journey to maturity can indeed be mapped -- and that Reif Larsen, T.S.'s creator, has done it.

Nan Goldberg is a freelance writer and book critic.

Reif Larsen
Audio slideshow

'The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet'

Reif Larsen talked to The Globe about his debut novel.


By Reif Larsen

Penguin, 374 pp., illustrated, $27.95

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