Friday, March 17, 2017

Our States have Crazy Shapes - Lynn Garthwaite

Summary: A layman's version of the reasons for the odd shapes and sizes of the 50 United States. Interesting anecdotes about the reasons we ended up with panhandles and bootheels, and why the Upper Peninsula is a part of Michigan instead of Wisconsin. This is the source to find out how the discovery of gold convinced Congress to not divide California into three separate states and why slavery played a part in the size of Texas. Every state has a story. Bonus chapters about ongoing border disputes, Thomas Jefferson's ideal about the sizes of states, and some states that no longer exist.  (Summary and image from I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Have you ever looked at our map and wondered why some of our states are so bizarrely shaped? Let’s be honest, when you look at a map of our nation, it’s easy to see which lines were designed with natural boundaries (like rivers) in place, but how come West Virginia juts so far north? What’s up with the itty-bitty corner carved out of some states? How come some are so uniform? And if we’re going to be all rigid with our lines, how come some don’t follow a river and are so fluid?

This is a fun book that gives a great overview of each state’s boundaries as approved by Congress. It’s interesting to hear of some of the back-door deals that went on as territorial lines were being decided, noteworthy to see how Jefferson’s ideal design for the nation influenced the sizes and uniformity of the states a century later, and would be a great introductory book for kids interested in geography.

However, there were some detractors that heavily influenced my opinion of the book. First, for a book so full of information, I was curious to see the bibliography. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the research seems to be done on Wikipedia. Don’t get me wrong, Wikipedia is awesome for quick fact checks, trying to find the plot lines of one of the characters on a Marvel or a DC Comics TV show, or a two-bit biography on whatever queen you’re binge watching at the moment. But as a research book? I’m not okay with a user-edited content site being the top-visited research tool. When I was taking Argument in college, that was rule NUMBER ONE — don’t use random websites as a main research reference. That hasn’t changed.

Second, and more painfully for me, there was too much anti-Mormon sentiment throughout this book. Now, I understand that when the research consists of “Hmm, what does wiki say?” that things can go south quickly, but it was very difficult for me, not only as a Mormon, but as one who has thoroughly researched the formation of many of the territories discussed, to have been subjected to the unnecessary, utterly untruthful, and baffling misrepresentations of a period of history. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just in the “Utah” chapter, but every and any chance the author had to bash Mormonism, it was taken.

I take umbrage at the fact that a children’s reference book about how our states’ boundaries were set was used in this manner, and it was frustrating to then not even have true research I could turn to in order to see where the information was coming from. Further, knowing that the information is false (because I did the research myself years ago for work) it called into question the honesty, the impartiality, and the reliability of the rest of the information in the book.

I really had high hopes for this book, wanted it to be one my kids would fight over for quite a while (they’re fascinated by stuff like this!), but I was too taken aback at the tone and lackadaisical attitude to comfortably let my kids read it.  This is a pass for me.

Rating: One star

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