"Do you ever get the feeling like you already know the entire contents of the universe somewhere inside of your head, as if you were born with a complete map of this world already grafted onto the folds of your cerebellum and you are just spending your entire life figuring out how to access this map?"Twelve-year-old genius cartographer, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet lives on a ranch in Montana with his family - to his young eyes, his mother is a floundering entomologist and his father is an unloving, gritty rancher. Ever since his younger brother died tragically the summer before, T.S. feels as if his parents don't care whether he's present or not, and he retreats into the elaborate mapping of his world. Now, these are not maps in the traditional cartographic sense, but rather intricate diagrams and illustrations of every object, experience, and thought that he deems important enough to put down on paper. An elaborate diagram of a "Freight Train as a Sound Sandwich", the history of 20th century, mapped according to 12-year old boys eating Honey Nut Cheerios, the structure of the Bailey train yards in Nebraska. The scientific drawings he does for a professor friend at Montana State are so accurate and so beautifully rendered, that the professor sends them off to "the attic of our nation", the Smithsonian in Washington, without T.S.'s knowledge. When the museum awards T.S. the distinguished Baird fellowship, without knowing that he is only in junior high, T.S. debates whether to accept his new life or to continue in anonymity on the ranch. In light of his parental ignorance, this boy who has never been more that 50 miles from home, decides to slip off under cover of darkness, hop a freight train, and make his way across the country, on his own, to accept his award in D.C.
As a reader, I relish those books that challenge my perceptions of what a novel is meant to be, bending the rules of narration to create something truly unique and wonderful. The trick here lies in Larsen's delivery of T.S.'s story, not just in the tale itself. Being that our narrator is a cartographer, we are provided with diagrammatical footnotes in the margins as a sort of illustration of whatever T.S. sees or thinks about. When confronted by a bible-thumping hobo, T.S. illustrates the man's terrifying features under the journal heading, "Fear is the Sum of Many Sensory Details". He has never seen a car with spinning rims before - "The Car With Black Windows That Drove Backwards While Traveling Forwards". The added element of these illustrations creates an entirely different book - one that transcends mere novel and becomes a visual, physical mapping of a story. A novel as art, if you will - in a more literal sense. T.S.'s humor, naivete, and intelligence become remarkably magnified through his maps. Everything he experiences becomes heightened and the writing takes on a more evocative air when coupled with these remarkable additions, creating a beautiful, hilarious, moving story unlike anything I have ever read.
How could there possibly be another novel this year that is more of a complete package than this? I was left stunned by it's brilliance and humbled by Larsen's talent.