on February 28, 2009
I was prepared to enjoy this book, but it was a disappointment. Others have commented on the poor organization and lack of compelling personal stories. It is discouraging to find blatant errors in states I know something about, so I wonder about the validity of the rest of the book. For example, he states that the western US-Canadian border was set to insure that the British kept control of the important port of Vancouver, BC. The city of Vancouver was founded about fifty years later after completion of the transcontinental railroad; no Europeans lived there when the border was established. He claims that "Yuma California" (it is in Arizona) was important since the Colorado River was navigable up to the Utah border prior to the construction of Hoover Dam. I'd like to know how many steamships regularly made their way upstream through the Grand Canyon? He makes allusions to the importance of the Southern Pacific Railroad in Arizona and New Mexico long before it was constructed. There are numerous others, but you get the idea. I think he just made stuff up that sounded reasonable to him, without doing the necessary historical research. The absence of footnotes is telling.
on June 7, 2008
I won't try to compete with the detailed review above. I just want to add that I have been wondering about the odd shapes of the states for years, and wishing for info on this topic.
I was thrilled to see that this book was finally available.
The book has surpassed my expectations. The details are fabulous. The ample maps fully illustrate the narrative.
Each state is explained. For example, why does Rhode Island have "island" in it's name? Buy the book and find out.
When I lived in Mobile, I puzzled for years over Alabama's "tab" at the south. My guess was that it had something to do with giving the state a gulf shoreline. (Maybe for condos?) I was wrong. It's all Florida's fault.
In short, this book is fascinating! Even if you think you're not interested, you will be. The arcane knowledge you learn will make you the star of any party, or a total bore.
I love it!
on August 29, 2008
This book is somewhat interesting, but overall it is very disappointing. Light on substance, heavy on repetition, and full of errors.
It quickly glosses over major historical events to race through each state's borders. The choice of dealing with the states alphabetically is odd and leads to reiteration of the same facts over and over without deeper explanation. The French and Indian War is mentioned 16 times, but the causes of it are never described.
Errors are frequent. In "Arizona," Stein writes about a buffer "...around the town of Yuma, California..." Yuma is in Arizona. He states that Texas joined the United States in 1846. It became a state in 1845. He never describes New Hampshire's northern border, stating that the western border of that state is the Connecticut River but completely ignoring the fact that the northern border departs from the river on its way to Maine.
The book seems amateurish and incomplete. I realize the author is a playwright, but that is not an excuse. It left me wanting more.
on September 8, 2008
Our library just got this book in, and it bothers me that the promotion of this book includes the falsehood that this is the first book to tackle how the states got their shapes... Just nine years ago, there was the book The Shape of the Nation-Why the States are Shaped Like That by Jim Feldman, which is arguably a better book and with better resources/references/footnotes. You might like to poke around a bit to see what else is out there (such as Mr. Feldman's book) before you invest the money and reading-time in this book.
on September 10, 2008
There is a lot of useful information in this slim volume, but the omissions I know about without so much as cracking open a book indicate to me that the author didn't really do enough research to justify his grandiose title.
I enjoyed learning such things as how a small valley was transferred from Massachusetts to New York hundreds of years after their borders were presumably set. Indeed, I wondered why Arizona didn't seek to cede the isolated and ungovernable Colorado City, home of alleged polygamists, to Utah on the same basis. It was also interesting to learn about how some lines were mis-surveyed, though Stein could have gone into further depth as to why in some cases courts would allow this to continue.
Given that nearly every school child knows about the Mason-Dixon line, it would have seemed natural for Stein to cover their work in far more detail than he did.
But what really bugged me is that he totally missed a number of interesting issues relating to borders. For example, there was an arbitration between the U.S. and Canada over the border between Alaska and British Columbia in the panhandle region. This makes for interesting history, the idea that our border was subject to a vote of six people, three from each country. Stein doesn't mention it at all. There was a war called the Pig War, commemorated by a National Historic Site, over British and American claims to the San Juan and Gulf Islands off Washington. And why does the border, which follows the 49th parallel even to include a tiny, noncontiguous area called Point Roberts, suddenly head southward so that Vancouver Island isn't split between the U.S. and Canada? Not a word from Stein. Finally, Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior, is (a) in the United States, not Canada; and (b) in Michigan, not Minnesota, to which it is far closer. Why? Not a word from Stein.
If these things, all of at least as much interest as the questions Stein does ask in his book, are not covered, what others of which I am unaware are not covered as well?
on October 29, 2008
Giving this a generous third star because I'm a geography nerd, but it was kind of disappointing. Three reasons:
1) I understand listing the states alphabetically (I chose not to read them that way) as a reference work, but this isn't really being sold/marketed as a reference work, but more of a popular geography. Another reviewer thought it should've been done by region, and I agree.
2) If you're going to do it alphabetically, you need to include all the info for each state. Sure, there's the repetition issue, but there's already a fair amount of repetition anyway (not sure why he went through the trouble of the 'Do Not Skip This' intro section if he was going to tell us over and over and over the same info) -- why not go all the way? Examples: in Georgia, we learn about the Orphan Strip, which was contested by North Carolina and Georgia (and South Carolina made a play for it too) ... so why is the only mention in the Georgia section? If you're not going to include the full discussion, at least reference it. Other idiosyncracies: we learn that the 'boot heel' of Missouri which dips below the 36'30" line designated by Congress was through the actions of someone who stood to gain from it being in Missouri rather than Arkansas, but it's only in the Arkansas section that we learn that the border for the heel was set at the 36' line. Also: in the intro to West Virginia, it's asked why parts of West Virginia aren't in Maryland, but then in the section itself there's not a single mention of Maryland. I think an attempt to spend more time with each state would have eliminated these idiosyncracies, and would have resulted in a deeper understanding of each border decision.
3) I have some concerns about historical accuracy. Ignoring the lack of footnotes or extensive bibliography (which I am disappointed in), there's an assertion (repeated several times) that Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia gave up their western territory claims after the Constitution was signed with the future vision that more slave states could be made to balance the anti-slavery north states (which would grow in the Northwest Territories where slavery was forbidden). This struck me as extremely odd; first, because at that time states like New York and New Jersey still were slave states, and second because it was a good fifty years or so before abolitionism went mainstream (and thirty years before the Missouri Compromise). I did some checking, and I could not find info that corroborated this assertion (if you know of any, please put in the comments). Instead, the reasoning seemed to be a mix of reassuring other states of the original 13 without claims to western land that the new Union wouldn't be dominated by gigantic states such as a joined Virginia/Kentucky, or in exchange for the federal government assuming war debt or providing financial considerations. As someone who reads a lot of history, this forces me to consider that there may be other mistakes (besides the wrong map in Figure 126) and limits my faith in the veracity of the book.
Ultimately, it's a great idea with really faulty execution. I hope someone (and the original author is more than welcome to tackle it) is inspired by this book to write something a little better organized and that goes deeper in discussing the whys of the states' borders.
on July 18, 2015
Why do some states have bits sticking out, or bits cut out, or areas that jut into other states? Where are the borders where they are, and why aren't they straight or consistent?
This book is very informative. I like that it starts with the big picture, covering the major land acquisitions by the United States, to set the stage, before zooming in to discuss the individual states' current borders. Be sure to read the introductory material. Some reviewers say that the book has errors; I've not noticed them, but don't claim to be an expert here.
Note that the book, while informative, is not particularly well written. It's dry and lacks any semblance of "story." Think of it as a reference book, and not as a narrative on U.S. history or state history. You're not going to sit and "read" this cover to cover; rather, you'll look things up in it.
We purchased this book from Amazon in hardcover when it first came out — I think 2009. Sadly, it disappeared, probably we loaned it to someone and it didn't come back. When I saw that it was available as part of Amazon's "Matchbook" program that lets hard-copy buyers acquire the Kindle version at a discount, I bought it again (June 2015). It's worth having, though....
HINT: The best book I've ever read on this subject is "Boundaries of the United States and the Several States," published by the United States Geological Survey in 1975. I have it as a bound book, but you can download this 190-page book as a PDF for free from https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/pp909
on July 17, 2008
Georgia has been undergoing a severe drought for several years now, particularly in the Atlanta area: as with Las Vegas, they are running out of water for lawns, fountains, golf courses, etc. So the governor had a well-publicized and very public prayer for rain. This review is not the place to discuss the religious and political implications of why God did not answer the governor's prayers, but it is very relevant about what happened next. The Bible and the 10 Commandments has imprecations about coveting: the State of Georgia turned its covetous eyes on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga. The northern border of Georgia falls about a mile too far south to actually reach the river, and so Georgia has decided to contest its northern border with Tennessee, and to shift the border just far enough so that it can sink its fangs (so to speak) into the river. And you had thought that border disputes between the states was all finished 100-200 years ago!
How the Staes Got Their Shapes describes how the state borders came to be. Much of this is interesting, but some is not quite as exciting. There are states that are nicely squared off--no interesting little wiggles in the borders. The residents of, say, Colorado and Wyoming will probably find more to enjoy in the descriptions of those states than the rest of us. Everything is organized by state, but of course most borders affect other states as well--so there's a great deal of cross-referencing, accompanied by an increasingly tiresome breathless "DON'T SKIP THIS" in full caps. You will get the impression that accidents happen frequently, and that many borders make no sense whatsoever, other than as lasting memorials to the inability of some surveyors to read their instruments carefully.
So it's an interesting book. I also expect that as resources get scarcer (such as the water in the Tennessee River) we may see more attempts by states to challenge borders. As the book notes, in 1998 the Supreme Court ruled in New Jersey's favor about the boundaries of Ellis Island: New York was the loser. You'll see some strange-looking maps, such as the one with the State of Connecticut extending west in a narrow strip to the Pacific Ocean. Maybe Connecticut can dust off a few old rulings and grow a bit! So overall, this is a book that while perhaps a bit dull in some places is a lot of fun in many others.
"How the States Got Their Shapes" relates various reasons for state boundaries. The book is chock full of maps illustrating boundaries and how some changed over time. Each state has a separate entry, which makes it nice if the reader is interested in a certain state. On the other hand, it's a bit artificial, as any given boundary is shared by two or more states. The book thus ends up being repetitious if you read it from beginning to end, as I did.
I'm an amateur geography fan, so I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It's written for all audiences, and the author avoids using too much jargon. Instead, it focuses more on the historical reasons that states came to be certain shapes. I learned quite a few fascinating tidbits, although as other reviewers have pointed out, the entries are fairly surface level. A list of sources for each state, though, provides the reader with possible follow-up materials to read.
Note: This review is for the Kindle version, which I would rate just 2 stars. One of the beautiful things about using a Kindle is that a book can include links, which would have greatly benefited this book. So when the author discusses the boundaries for West Virginia, he notes "See Virginia," but he doesn't include a link! Navigating to Virginia from another entry is awkward. This book ABSOLUTELY needs links in the Kindle version.
on July 13, 2008
Driving though Northeastern PA, I often passed a historical marker describing that the area was CT in the mid-18th Century. So, when I saw this book, I purchased it initially so that I could learn more about this intriguing part of history. This book is enjoyable and informative and helps the reader make sense of aspects of American history. It is structured so that you can pick it up now and then and read various state histories when your time and inclination permit. Not only did I learn about PA and CT, Plymouth versus Massachusetts settlements, Jefferson's ideas, and various latitudes, but I was fascinated by the anti-Mormon and pro- silver and gold sentiments that created Nevada; why Alabama and Mississippi look like mirror images; the various notches in state borders, the importance of rivers, and so much more.