Doug Mack’s The Not-Quite States of America (subtitled: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA) will be a reminder to some that not all of America’s citizens live in one of the country’s fifty states. To other, perhaps younger, readers, the book will serve as a startling revelation of that same fact because, once a hot topic in the United States, the several territories and possessions still held by the U.S. seldom enter into the public conversation these days. Simply put, not only are they out of sight, they are out of mind.
Doug Mack, a travel writer with a degree in American studies, decided to take a look at these forgotten parts of America, beginning with his stop at the U.S. Virgin Islands where he realized that he “was still in the USA, but far from the states.” Later on the same trip, Mack spent time in American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, in each of which he managed to make friends and contacts while trying to determine how the residents feel about their unusual relationship with the United States. Interestingly, it does not particularly seem to bother anyone Mack speaks with that even those Americans aware of the unique relationship between the territories and the rest of the country have all but forgotten how it all happened, and now see the territories as inconsequential “vestiges from another era.” Never mind that places like Puerto Rico provide more military recruits per capita than any of America’s actual states.
Mack tells us that he has been fascinated by “Americana” since he was a child and his parents read him road-trip books at bedtime – and he is quick to point out no American road-trip book has ever shown any love for the territories. So where did Mack’s fascination with (or at least, his awareness of) the territories begin? Believe it or not, it all started with what he calls “The Quarters of Destiny,” the commemorative coin set that celebrated the statehood of all fifty of America’s states. So why, he wondered, were several more quarters issued after the one celebrating Hawaii becoming a state in 1959, making it the last state to be admitted to the union?
Mack takes his readers on a complete tour of the territories: the commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1898); the organized, unincorporated territory of Guan (1898); the organized, unincorporated territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands (1917); the unorganized, unincorporated territory of American Samoa (1900); and the commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (1976). (Each of the official territory status-designation types has specific legal implications when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of those living there.) Along the way, he is befriended by people he meets on the streets, politicians, business owners (including a semi-famous chef), museum curators, and Americans from the mainland now living in one of the territories who are happy to share with him what it took them years to figures out for themselves.
The Not-Quite States of America is both informative and fun to read because of the way Mack alternates sections of hard fact with stories about the kind of thing most of us wish would happen to us when traveling somewhere for the first time: invitations to local parties, private tours of residences and museums, invitations to family meals, bar-hopping with the locals, the chance to speak with prominent local politicians, etc. Surprisingly, many territory residents, as it turns out, are content to remain an American afterthought, much preferring the status quo to becoming just another U.S. state. Mack, who does an admirable job of listing the pros and cons of statehood for each of the territories, makes it easy to understand why many living in the territories would prefer independence to statehood.
Part travel book, part American history book, part sociology book, The Not-Quite States of America is always intriguing. What happens next for the U.S. territories remains to be seen, but Doug Mack has done his bit to make the rest of us at least a bit more aware that American soil is more widespread than we may have imagined it to be.