Despite being a bit behind on my reviews for advanced copies from publishers, I stepped away briefly in part because my next book to read within that category is I Am Radar by Reif Larsen. I decided I should finally read his first novel, from 2009, which has been sitting on my literal to-read shelf almost since that time.
Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12 year old cartographer, though I do wonder whether cartographer is quite the right word to encompass T.S.'s interests. He draws maps but he also obsessively draws behaviors of the people around him, the physical processes required to do things, the sound waves of various gunshots. He is mapping a corn-husking session with his sister, Gracie, in Montana when he receives a call from The Smithsonian informing him he's won an award for which he didn't even know he was entered and the caller clearly doesn't understand that he's talking to a 12-year old boy.
Spivet decides to run away from home to Washington D.C., where he imagines he will find an intellectually nourishing world. Most of his journey is spend on a train, where he somewhat naively, even for a twelve year old boy, believes the world to be the same as it was during the old hobo-train-hopping days.
I was confused during the initial parts of this book as to the time period it was set in. Spivet's world in Montana made me first believe it was from something like the 1950's, until we see evidence of his sister's iPod. I understand that Larsen wanted to show us T.S. moving from his staid and known world to one utterly unlike it, like Chicago and D.C., but although I don't live on a ranch in Montana, I still have a hard time believing that a boy raised when this book was set (seemingly 2008?) wouldn't be just a bit more worldly than T.S.
I wasn't sure about T.S.'s story at first, though the beautiful drawings and the humor - and more depth to the family story than I expected - started to draw me in:
"Packing might seem like a normal ritual that humans practiced daily across the globe - but when you stopped to think about it, packing, and especially packing for a trip to a foreign place, required a highly developed ability to predict the implements you would need for living in an environment that you were not familiar with."
"When I was hungry, my brain slowly began to shut down one section at a time: first I lost my mastery of social niceties, then I lost my ability to multiply, then I lost my capacity to speak in complete sentences, and so on."
"And the inside of their houseboat had been stuffed with this collection, so that when the winds blew hard, rocking their little home up and down, this way and that, the iridescent seashells would make little tapping noises on the mantel, as if applauding their own display."
"The CSX engines sat on the tracks, hissing and waiting, as if to say, 'You want to ride with us? You have never ridden with our caliber before. Are you worthy of such a trip? We are Easterners. If we were able to, we would wear monocles over our engine eye and talk of Rousseau. Have you read Rousseau? He is our favorite."
But then, towards the end, and especially at the end, I was put off a bit again. A couple of minor spoilers follow; read at your own risk. T.S.'s life in Montana is presented as quite rough in some ways and it's clear that the primary emotional and scientific nurturing he receives is from a teacher. I winced and then have since carried with me an early image from the book when T.S.'s father randomly and quite violently kicks a goat in the head. T.S. imagines that he will find his sort of people, and fanfare, on the Eastern coast, if he can only get there, and takes off on his own. Of course, nothing quite works out as he expected, and T.S. discovers that maybe he doesn't belong with the Smithsonian community, either. I was frustrated that there seemed to be a character within that group that T.S. could have easily approached for a balanced and appropriate treatment but he did not. Ultimately, T.S. decides that his home is back in Montana, and happily makes plans to return there, suddenly seeing love and support in his father when before he saw only neglect, abuse, and disdain.
There's a story within the story, and I always enjoy those. A couple of loose ends in The Selected Works convinces me that perhaps a sequel or a prequel may have initially been intended (or may even be in the works?) So I was iffy, then certainly engaged, and ended a bit flabbergasted at the choice of ending. I'm looking forward to reading I Am Radar next, to see what Larsen is doing now.