Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: "How the States Got Their Shapes" by Mark Stein

If you are the kind of person who is fascinated about why Maryland has such a funny shape, or why Texas is so much bigger than the other states around it, or why Delaware has that semicircle on its northern end, this book is for you.

The fifty chapters of this book each detail how a particular state got its "shape:" Why its boundaries were located as they were. There are some very amusing vignettes and some seldom-noticed details (did you know that the border between Iowa and Missouri actually curves? The surveyor goofed. And he wasn't the only one). There are explanations of often-asked questions (Why two Dakotas, instead of one? There aren't that many people in either, are there?). There were even quite a few "border disputes" throughout the history of our country; the most recent one was not settled until 1998.

I would recommend this book to any lover of history or geography; it is an insightful look at many little details of American history. Its only flaw is its organization. The author chose to arrange the book alphabetically by states, instead of chronologically. This is great if you are trying to find out why Michigan has that upper peninsula or why the northern border of New Jersey slants like it does, but generates redundancy when the boundary between Virginia and West Virginia is explained twice (in the chapters for each state), or when early treaties in our country's history (such as the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819) outlined what would eventually be borders of several states.

Nevertheless, it is a great read for the casual or serious student of American history.

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