This book is a thing of beauty. It stands out being an oversized hardback and invites you to pick it up and look inside … whereupon you’ll see all the intricate illustrations, sidebars and marginalia. Then reading the blurb, you’ll find out that it is the story of a 12 year old genius, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, how he gets to be invited to go to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC and his journey to get there. Totally captivating already without reading a word.
TS, as he likes to be known, lives on a remote ranch in Montana. His father is a taciturn cowboy, his mother is a talented scientist totally obsessed with studying rare beetles, his sister is a typical teenage girl. His brother, Layton we soon find out died a few months previously. His is not a typical household, and TS is not a typical boy.
He loves nothing more than to understand the world by mapping it – drawing illustrations, diagrams, and making lists. His mentor Dr Yorn submitted some of his work to the Smithsonian, not telling them he was only 12. So when they call inviting him to come and accept a prestigious award, TS sees his chance to escape Montana and make a pilgrimage to the home of learning, so he runs away and jumps a train hobo-style.
Having grabbed one of his mother’s notebooks, he starts to read it on the train, and is surprised to discover it’s not one of her beetle books, but the draft of a biography of one of his ancestors on his father’s side, who went on to become the first woman professor of geology. Eventually after many adventures, he arrives in DC. To his surprise, (but not ours), the museum sees that it can capitalise on their prize-winner being only 12, and the media circus starts leaving TS homesick and missing his family, and where for the first time, we see him as just a boy.
I really took to TS. He’s a loveable geek and an independent spirit. He struggles to understand his parents, especially since the death of his brother though. Throughout his journey, we share his confusion, his grief and need for space. In the boredom of the long train ride, through reading his mother’s manuscript, he begins to understand his heritage and to find his place in the scheme of things. The middle section on the train did slightly drag (intentionally I would wager), but the imagery (and TS’s maps) of the locomotive gradually thackety-thacking its way through the American mid-west are fantastic.
“I willed the landscape to stop, for the miniature men to stop cranking the scenery across my vision with that little landscape machine of theirs. Alas, the landscape continued flowing past with what seemed like an increasingly sadistic determination.”
This is a totally charming book. I loved everything about it – especially all the diagrams and footnotes. Also wonderful is the masterful way the author has teased out the story of the Spivet family – by the end of the novel we care about them all deeply. TS’s realisation, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that there’s ‘No place like home’ and his subsquent rescue may have the merest hint of schmaltz but is actually a truly satisfying ending to an amazing tale. (10/10)