In his informative travelogue, The Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack (Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day) puts a magnifying glass over the United States' overseas territories and commonwealths: American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In these distant corners, the world traveler finds plenty of American flags, U.S. Post Offices and Little Leagues, but also four million people debating whether their homelands should become states or independent countries.
The journey begins with Mack in his gym shorts. It’s laundry day in his apartment in Minneapolis, and he’s sorting through some quarters, setting a few aside to add to his wife’s state quarter collection, which includes coins from the first incorporated state, Delaware (1787) to the last, Hawaii (1959). But there are a few empty slots in her cardboard portfolio, beyond Hawaii. “Oh, right,” Mack remembers, “We have territories.”
Even as an American Studies major and a worldly travel writer, the U.S. territories were for Mack, as they are for many Americans, blanks on the map. He decides to fill in the gaps through travel and research, educating readers on everything from the difference between a commonwealth (Puerto Rico, North Mariana Islands) and a territory (Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa) to the best food in Puerto Rico (Café Lucia, if you befriend the owner).
A smart, funny meditation on the nature of American empire, Mack’s book has its poignant moments too, as he asks difficult questions about statehood and American identity. “The territories,” he concludes, “have made us who we are. They represent the USA’s place in the world.” Readers shouldn’t need much more of a reason to pick up his book, and after reading his descriptions of golden sunsets and phosphorescent bays, travelers will need even less of an excuse to visit these far-flung parts of the not-quite United States.