Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet - by Reif Larsen

A novel about grief, youth, and science, with some history, some travel, and a bit of magic realism thrown in.

Twelve-year old T.S. (Tecumseh Sparrow) Spivet is surprised to receive a call from the Smithsonian Institution informing him he has been awarded the Baird fellowship, a prize he has never heard of, for his exceptional illustrations and maps. Sure that his parents will not allow him to go to Washington, and knowing that the Smithsonian has no idea that he is a child, he packs his bag and leaves his ranch one morning in order to hop a train from his hometown in Montana and head east and claim his prize. The novel is divided into three parts. The first tells of his preparations for going east. The second is about the journey, which turned out to be really more of an odyessey, complete with a "cyclops" attack in the form of an over-zealous preacher with a lazy eye who stabs our young hero when he reaches Chicago. The final part tells of T.S.'s time in the nation's capital. Throughout the work readers are drawn to the marginalia which are drawings, or sometimes sidebars that provide more insight into the prodigy's world.

For someone who must do a lot of research, T.S. doesn't talk much about going to the library. It probably isn't easy for him though, as he lives on a ranch, and  can't just ride his bike to the public library after school. However, he does acknowledge sometimes riding with his father into town on Saturdays to go to the Butte Archives which were "crammed inside the upper story of an old converted firehouse...[and] could barely contain the haphazard array of historical detritus...[It] smelled of mildewed newspaper and a very particular, slightly acrid lavender perfume that the old woman who tended the stacks, Mrs. Tathertum, wore quite liberally." T.S. describes a "Pavlovian" reaction to the smell of the perfume which "instantly transported back that feeling of discovery, the sensation of fingertips against old paper, whose surface was powdery and fragile, like the membrane of a moth's wing." This passage really celebrates what archives are - true places of discovery, where any researcher may uncover some unknown artifact and experience a real sense of wonder in its age, and ponder who saved it in the first place, and why.

There are two side bar entries about books he checked out from the Butte Public Library. One of them mentions the classic children's book From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I can't remember where else I heard that book mentioned recently, but seeing it here made me think it has achieved some sort of legendary status. Even those who haven't read it, have probably at least heard of it.

While T.S. is on the train he passes some of the time reading a journal his mother wrote - a fictionalized account of his ancestry. It is in this journal that we learn that his great-great grandmother, Emma Osterville, completed her dissertation using the "libraries down at Yale".

While libraries are not heavily commented upon in this work, it is clear that T.S. recognizes their importance, and enjoys them when he can.

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