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Book Review: How The States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein

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Looking at a map of the United States, one of the first things you notice is the varied shapes and sizes of the states. Some boundaries are pretty obvious — rivers, for example, serve as borders quite frequently. But especially in the West, it's hard to figure out exactly why some of the states are shaped the way they are. Colorado and Wyoming, for example, are pretty rectangular. Then you look at Idaho, and wonder what the surveyor was smoking when the borders were created. Why does Michigan have two distinct parts, when they could have been made into two different states? What's up with the Oklahoma panhandle — not to mention Florida's panhandle?

Mark Stein answers questions like these, and many more, in his book How The States Got Their Shapes. The book isn't just an exercise in geography, or surveying; Stein looks at historical and political factors that influenced how each of the 50 states were shaped. Some states got royally ripped off in some land deals (the chapter on Maryland, my home state, broke my heart. So much lost land!). Some states played their political cards right and got access to the natural resources that they needed (Indiana). Stein goes into some depth, too, even looking at why there's a little dip in the northern border of Tennessee (surveying disputes between Virginian and North Carolinian surveyors trying to lay out the TN/KY border, among other things) and why some state borders don't quite line up with their neighbors' (Nebraska and Missouri's southern borders, for example).

It would have been easy for this book to have been a dry tome best suited for geography classroom torture sessions. Stein's writing style makes this book not just bearable, but actually enjoyable to read. Rather than reading a textbook, you're enjoying a conversation with someone who has some fascinating facts to share. It's easier to get through the book when the author seems to be enjoying the subject, and that certainly comes through in this book.

How The States Got Their Shapes is a must for anyone who is interested in geography and mapping. Homeschoolers will want this one as part of their library. But beyond that, anyone with a curiosity about history, or anyone who has ever looked at a map and wondered what was up with Montana, or Arkansas, or those two notches in New Mexico's southern border — anyone with those questions and an ounce of curiosity will enjoy this book. And it may even help you win a trivia contest or two.

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About Warren Kelly

  • Oh, I’ve got to read this now. Fascinating!