Review 2009: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12-year-old boy who spends most of his time on a Montana ranch mapping things. Not just making geological maps but mapping the everyday activities on the ranch—his sister’s technique of shucking corn, the regularity of his father’s sip of whiskey, as well as numerous scientific subjects. In fact, his mentor, Dr. Yorn, has encouraged him to submit drawings to various journals, and he has had some published.

T. S. does not feel comfortable at home. He is mocked by most of his schoolmates. He feels he is a disappointment to his rancher father, and his scientist mother, whom he calls Dr. Claire, seems to be completely obsessed by the search for a particular beetle. Worse, his oldest brother has recently died.

One day he gets a call from the Smithsonian. It appears that Dr. York submitted one of his diagrams as an entry in a prestigious fellowship and he has won. Dr. Jibsen, unaware of his age, informs him he is expected at the Smithsonian on Thursday to give a speech.

At first T. S. hesitates about accepting the award, but then he decides to go to Washington. He packs up some things and hops a freight train east.

Liberally decorated with T. S.’s drawings and musings, this novel is inventive and sometimes funny. In a way, it is meant as a wild romp with a philosophical dint, so maybe we’re meant to overlook the truly implausible aspects of the story, such as that a recipient of an important award would have someone on the Smithsonian end immediately organizing his flight.

I was drawn along at first and ready to suspend my disbelief, but first, what can your hero do while he spends several days on a freight train getting to Chicago. Nothing, right? If you are expecting a picaresque series of adventures like I was, you’ll be disappointed. But T. S. has brought along one of his mother’s notebooks, which is how he discovers she is writing a novel about one of his father’s ancestors. Larsen inserts the entire contents of the notebook into the middle of the novel, with a few interruptions. At first, it was interesting, but after a while I sighed every time I saw the typographic clue that the novel was restarting.

This is all fairly unimportant, though, against the criticism that T. S.’s voice is never convincing as that of a 12-year-old, genius or not. Yes, he is childish at times, but then his voice is much too young for a 12-year-old. But most of his musings and concerns are those of an adult.

Is the book fun to read? Yes, mostly. But I tired of it after a while.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1861: Great Circle

After getting fired from a hit TV series with a cult following for damaging the brand, Hadley Baxter thinks her career might be over. However, she is approached about starring in an independent film about the life of Marian Graves, an early aviator who disappeared in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the earth via the poles.

Although the novel sometimes follows Hadley as she tries to figure herself out, its main focus is on Marian and her twin brother, Jamie. As babies, they are on their father’s ship when it sinks, and because he chooses to save them rather than go down with his ship, he serves time in jail. They are raised in Missoula, Montana, by their alcoholic artist uncle, who lets them run wild.

When a pair of barnstormers stop over, Marian is bit by the flying bug. She is already doing men’s work, so she begins working harder to earn enough for flying lessons. But no one will teach her until she meets Barclay Macqueen, a bootlegger.

Great Circle is a broad-ranging novel that takes us from bootlegging in the West to serving mining camps in Alaska to ferrying planes in England before the flight around the world. I found Marian’s story more compelling than Hadley’s but still found the novel fascinating. Since I read it, it has been nominated for the Booker prize, so is part of my project.

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Day 1293: Fourth of July Creek

Cover for Fourth of July CreekBest Book of Five!
Pete Snow is a social worker living in a remote region of Montana in the early 1980’s. His life is slowly falling apart. He has left his wife because of her infidelity, and she soon decides to move to Texas, taking their thirteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, with her.

Pete is called to school because a ragged boy is found there. The boy is Benjamin Pearl, the son of a religious fundamentalist who thinks the feds are after him. In trying to help the boy, Pete slowly begins to learn the forces that have made Jeremiah Pearl so distrustful.

The world Henderson depicts is a rough one and it seemed at times to be filled with lowlifes. Nevertheless, Henderson draws you into his universe and makes you understand these people. Although this novel is at times harrowing, it is also touching and compassionate. I read it for my James Tait Black project and really enjoyed it.

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Day 823: Black River

Cover for Black RiverWes and Claire Carver have been living in Spokane since they left Black River, Montana, 30 years before. But when Claire realizes she is dying from cancer, she asks Wes to take her home to Black River. She also asks him to play to her, which he cannot do, because his fingers were broken years before.

Although Wes plans to take her the day after Claire’s request, she dies during the night. So, Wes prepares to return her ashes to Black River.

Wes has not been there nor seen his stepson Dennis since he and Claire left, although Claire has been back to see her son. Their leaving was after a horrendous series of events. First, there was a riot in the prison where Wes worked. He was held prisoner by a convict, Bobby Williams, for more than a day, and tortured, his fingers ruined. Later, in an argument with teenage Dennis, Dennis pulled a gun on him. That was when he demanded that Claire choose between him and Dennis.

Added to his grief and the difficulties of seeing Dennis again, Wes has heard that Bobby Williams is up for parole. Williams claims to have found God and to be a different person than he was when he held Wes captive. Wes doesn’t believe that people can change. In fact, his beliefs go farther than that, the source of the problems between him and his stepson. Dennis’ father was a criminal, and Wes has always watched for criminal tendencies in Dennis. Finally, Williams robbed Wes of one thing, his gift as a talented fiddler, that made him believe true faith was possible.

Like the modern Western novels of Kent Haruf, which inspired this one, Black River is a quiet story about ordinary people. Although Hulse is not Haruf’s equal as a stylist, she shows herself as an accomplished storyteller.

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Day 588: I Await the Devil’s Coming

Cover for I Await the Devil's ComingI had a strong reaction to I Await the Devil’s Coming, which I will explain in a moment. This book was written in 1901 and belongs in the category of confessional literature. It apparently was quite a sensation at the time and had a great following by young women.

Mary MacLane was a 19-year-old woman living in a Montana mining town. In the book she declares herself a genius and an egoist who is waiting for her life to start when the Devil takes her away to be his love. This book is claimed as an early feminist work, and in the introduction, there is a statement to the effect that if MacLane had been a young man, she could have gone off and made her mark.

I don’t see this book as a feminist work at all but more likely as an expression of mental illness. I have met a similar person in a relative, who complained that life was hell on earth and that the people of our town were all provincial philistines. MacLane wasn’t going to act, she was waiting for things to happen to her. You could reply that in her time and place there was nothing a respectable woman could do to change her life, but of course, MacLane didn’t care about being respectable, at least she said she didn’t.

MacLane was mentally ill not because she said she was waiting for the Devil, but because she showed signs of severe depression alternating with fervor and euphoria, and she heard voices. If she had been a young man, she would have been incapable of striking out on her own and making a success of herself.

In fact, she did not. Her book was published and she was kicked out of the house. We don’t really know how she led her life after that. She wrote another book years later that was not a success, and she died alone in her 40’s in a hotel room.

It is a sad story. The book is well written, visceral at times, but it is not a feminist masterpiece. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist. George Eliot was to some extent a feminist. Mary Wollstonecraft was a feminist. Mary MacLane was not.

Could the situation of women at the turn of the century make a woman ill? That is another question. Charlotte Perkins Gilman obviously thought so.


Day 90: As the Crow Flies

Cover for As the Crow FliesIn honor of the premiere of “Longmire,” the new TV series on A&E starting this Sunday and based on Craig Johnson’s mystery series, today I’m reviewing his latest book, As the Crow Flies. Johnson’s series features Walt Longmire, the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming. The highlights of the series are likable characters and difficult puzzles and a sense of the modern American West as almost a character in the novels.

Walt and his best friend Henry Standing Bear are in Montana at the Cheyenne reservation trying to make the final arrangements for Walt’s daughter’s wedding. Although Henry reserved the site at Crazy Head Spring where Cady wants to be married several months earlier, the librarian on the reservation wants it for a Cheyenne language immersion class, and she is not to be denied. Walt and Henry manage to alienate the new Tribal Police Chief, Lolo Long, at first sight as they are on their way to Painted Warrior cliff to see if it will be a good alternate site for the wedding. While they are taking pictures to send Cady, they see a woman and her baby fall from the cliff above them. The woman dies, but the baby lives, and Walt and Henry rush it to the reservation clinic. On the way, Chief Long tries to arrest them.

Things look suspiciously like murder. Chief Long is belligerant and has already made some law-enforcement errors, but after Walt makes a few cogent observations about her job performance and helps her keep her jurisdiction from the FBI, she asks him to teach her to be a police chief.

Although it looks at first as if the girl’s abusive boyfriend may be guilty, Walt is not so sure. After a red truck tries to run him down along the road, he traces the truck to a different suspect. Walt is torn between helping Chief Long with her police work and working Cady’s to-do list.

As well as the cast of recurring characters you expect from a Johnson novel and some interesting new ones, As the Crow Flies continues the hint of Indian mysticism that has appeared here and there in the series,  including a peyote ceremony and a conversation with the deceased Virgil White Buffalo (who I miss). Its taste of Cheyenne culture gives it an added dimension.