The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

We review the deeply imaginative novel by Reif Larsen.

Have you ever diagramed the process of shucking corn? What about envisioning the sounds of a train as a sandwich? Or mapping the concentration of litter in Chicago? When T.S. Spivet looks at the world, he sees innumerable things to diagram, chart and basically dissect. In his debut novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Reif Larsen tells the story of 12-year-old genius cartographer T.S. as he embarks on a journey across the country on his own from his small town in Montana to D.C.

It all starts when a teacher sends one of T.S.’ scientific illustrations to the Smithsonian under the guise that he’s an adult. The famous institute calls T.S. to inform him that he has won a prestigious award and is asked to visit D.C. to accept his award in person. After some deliberation, he decides to make the journey—without telling his family where he’s going. Leaving behind his scientist mother, stoic farmer/cowboy father and bored 15-year-old sister, T.S. embarks on a trip across the country, hopping a train that takes him across the country.

He is alone with his own thoughts on the train, though he does begin imagining conversations with Valero, the RV he takes refuge in on one of the train cars. While T.S. fixates on his hunger—going so far as to draw a diagram for why McDonald’s is so delicious, and the aforementioned “freight train as sound sandwich” chart—he also reveals small glimmers of deep thoughts in his footnotes.

The book has the physical shape of a cumbersome square, but this is to accommodate the footnotes T.S. includes with his diagrams, and further explanations of the more narrative  text. The reader learns early on not to ignore or skip over any of these small additions—they prove to be some of the most insightful comments in the book. In one footnote, about halfway through his journey, T.S. writes: “I was hooked on both believing and not believing. Maybe I was becoming an adult.”

In another lengthier footnote, the reader learns the story behind T.S.’ brother Layton’s death. There are allusions to Layton’s death from an accidental gunshot wound, and from the beginning, it’s known that it was caused by a bullet to the head and was in incident that happened while T.S. was measuring the soundwaves of gunshots. T.S.’ guilt over the accident proves to be a driving force for his trip.

Like it would be for an adult traveling alone, the trip for T.S. is a way for him to work through his deepest feelings—those that are normally pushed aside, not to be considered. From confronting his emotions about his brother’s untimely death, to discovering something about his mother, the journey forces T.S. to come to terms with certain things in his life. And though the 12-year-old has a maturity about him that is observed in people with such intelligence, in the end, he’s still 12 years old.

Successfully running away from home, hitching a train ride across the country, trading blows with a crazy person, discovering a secret society, coming to terms with his brother’s untimely death and learning some family secrets—from beginning to end, Larsen takes the reader on quite the adventure with T.S. As a testimonial from Stephen King states on the back cover, the book “combines Mark Twain, Thomas Pynchon and Little Miss Sunshine.”

Throughout this story, you will feel the rush of the train as it blows through town after town, the underlying sense of fear T.S. experiences at nighttime as he truly has only his thoughts as company, and the focus on and appreciation of the little things in life (as only a 12-year-old with a heightened sense of the details can see them).

Though he wins that award in D.C. and becomes a sort of America’s sweetheart, the real prize for T.S. is his newfound understanding of his family—and himself.

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