Having wished for some time that this country were in a different shape – that is, its political intelligence, its health insurance system, its educational structure, its leaders, its women, its Congress, its media (reading this with Fox News on in the background, eh?), its infrastructure, its nuclear waste sites, its polar bears and wolves (the four-legged kind, though now we all have to worry about the Wall Street species, too), oh, I could go on – here next to me is a book to inspire the perfect question for our so-called presidential debaters (so-called because in an actual authentic genuine real debate, you are expected to provide an actual authentic genuine real answer to the question) this week: How did the states get their shapes? And when both of them say, uhhh, well, uhhh, gee, that’s not on my playlist, they would be allowed to answer the variation: How have the states gotten into the shapes they are in: suffering from divisions along class lines, unemployment, ill health, mediocre education, alienation from the above-named anointed estates, but thrilled to see the band put the dot on O h i o on any given Saturday.
“How the States Got Their Shapes” by Mark Stein (Collins, 332 pp., illustrated, hardcover, $22.95) might be just the tranquilizer one needs when trying to comprehend US history, be it in the making or made already. Take Ohio. Imagine it before coal mines and marching bands.
You might have wondered for years why West Virginia has that finger of land between Ohio and Pennsylvania and thought it was not important because it had nothing to do with New England. But everything has something to do with New England, and in this case, Connecticut was an accidental designer of West Virginia. Connecticut had claims there along the Ohio River granted by England, as did Virginia. But unlike big Virginia, small Connecticut was reluctant to release what it called its Western Reserve. Until 1800, after which the only remnant of Connecticut in Ohio is embedded in one of the Buckeye state’s famous universities, Case Western Reserve.
Stein, a playwright and screenwriter and university teacher in Washington, D.C., meticulously dissects every state’s shape, be it boringly square or rectangular, or seemingly misshapen like Oklahoma or Idaho. He explains why Michigan has a part that is not connected to the state (but is connected to Wisconsin), why some Hawaiian islands are not Hawaii, why tiny parts of Delaware are attached to New Jersey (say it ain’t so, Joe), why Texas and California are so big next to their more modestly sized neighboring states, why Georgia and Colorado and Massachusetts have sections that seem to intrude into Florida and Nebraska and Connecticut, and how Maryland came to be its indescribable shape despite long years of border disputes with each of its neighbors. And do all you Bostonians know about Boston Corners being given to New York?
If maps mesmerize you, the dose here is right. The chapters are alphabetical, with a modern state map on the first page and small explanatory historical maps to follow in the text, if political behavior can be so simply explained. And to a reader skimming around the United States in this way, Stein might seem also to touch on some of those other questions about the state we are in, if only inferentially.
There on the border between history and mystery, "How the States Got Their Shapes'' sure makes putting a United States jigsaw puzzle together with your 3-year-old grandson a lot more fun.