“I did not belong here. I had known this a long time, I suppose, but the tunnel vision embodied in my father's gesture crystallized this truth. I was not a creature of the high country.” T.S. Spivet, the twelve-year-old narrator of this most unusual novel, is a mapmaking genius and scientific illustrator extraordinaire. He loves his family but feels alienated from them in his strange obsession to map every aspect of the world; their Montana ranch feels too small to contain his brilliance. When he learns that he has won a prestigious science award from the Smithsonian, T.S. doesn't let his youth or inexperience deter him: he hops a freight train, hobo-style, and takes off for our nation's capital, armed only with a couple of changes of clothes, a wide assortment of scientific instruments, and a single stolen volume of his mother's entomological notes, which turns out not to be at all what he expected.
What makes The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet so compelling is that we get to glimpse the inside of T.S.'s extraordinarily busy mind via the dozens of tiny, detailed maps, drawings, lists, charts, diagrams, and explanations that fill the book's margins. Here is a schematic that reveals how he navigated the Smithsonian automated phone menu. Later, a minuscule drawing demonstrates the relative merits of a juice box vs. a juice pouch. Fiction, he admits, is difficult to map; Moby-Dick has him stumped. But everything, everything in the physical world seems ripe for quantifying. At times T.S. seems more than brilliant; he seems to have an almost savant syndrome-like need to record his interactions with and observations of the world around him. Yet his fears, his homesickness, his guilt over the role he may have played in his little brother's death are deeply touching. As odd as he may be, T.S. is also very human, and his Selected Works is both a grand adventure tale and a single, highly detailed snapshot of a boy on the verge of becoming a young man.