Neither On the American Continent nor States: Discuss

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches From the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA by Doug Mack. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. 9780393247602.

While sorting laundry quarters to see which should go in his wife’s state quarters collection, Mack noticed an extra five off to the side for the US territories: the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. He realized he knew almost nothing about these parts of the US, despite being both a travel writer and having a degree in American studies. He set out to visit them. He imagined white picket fences, baseball, and banana trees: a tropical all-America. Instead, he found the world’s largest K-Mart, a park filled with erotic statues, a machine-gun shooting range for Japanese tourists, and huge tropical national parks.

Mack is a great guide — he’s funny, well-informed, curious, and has enough Minnesotan friendliness that he ends up being taken in and shown around by people he’s just met. His firsthand observations are interspersed with history and politics. These places became part of America during its “Imperial Moment,” an odd span of time when the US had aspirations to become an empire. There were a series of Supreme Court cases that established that the Constitution does not necessarily follow the flag. There are strange side-effects of not living within a state, like not having votes in the Electoral College (assuming the locals are allowed to vote in US elections, which in Samoa they aren’t). The details of their truly bizarre legal and political landscapes are jaw-dropping: not just the shockingly un-American laws (early Naval governors of Guam forbade speaking the native Chamorro language in public), but the laundry list of ways the territories are treated poorly or just plain forgotten that causes high rates of poverty and crime, and provides little to address these problems. I hope this book starts discussions about how we treat these parts of our country.

I kept telling people about things I learned as I was reading: the territories have the higher rates of joining the armed services than any state, the US Virgin Islands has the highest murder rate in the US, American Samoa prohibits non-Samoans from owning land (thus there are no resort hotels) while Guam allows non-Guamanians to lease land for 50 years, and the shade of blue on the Puerto Rican flag you fly indicates how you feel about independence vs statehood (a topic at every gathering). The story of how the US “colonized” one of the Mariana Islands by having Hawaiian high school boys stay there, fishing and gathering food, in shifts for four months at a time is unforgettable.  This book reminded me of the wonderful, engaging histories by Sarah Vowell. I hope Mack will be just as prolific.

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