I first learned about this book in an article, probably this one, which shows how
long it sometimes takes me to actually get around to reading my nonfiction books, since that article is dated November 2013. The concept interested me as someone who has lived in various states and lived outside the U.S., which gave an interesting perspective looking back at my own homeland.
Now that I’ve read this book I can see that I’ve lived in probably five of the North American nations posited by Colin Woodard. The idea is that there’s a very good reason why the U.S. can seem so divided politically and culturally, and it doesn’t necessarily break down on state lines or our normally-outlined regional lines. Instead there are eleven distinctive cultures or nations within North America. He defines nations as “a group of people who share–or believe they share–a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols.” Some of the nations discussed cross over into Canada and Mexico, but the main focus is on the United States. He goes back to the arrival of Europeans on the continent and how each group influenced the location where they settled, socially, culturally, politically, etc.
It’s fascinating and convincing as he shuttles you through history, describing the nations and their conflicts right up to the present day. I think he’s on firmer ground historically than when he gets to predicting future possibilities, but I suppose anything is more clear looking back. Also, he can come across a bit condescending to the Southerners. I happen to have grown up in the nations he calls Greater Appalachia and the Deep South, though I now live in New Netherland, and I understand the criticisms they receive, but it seems a bit unbalanced. Yankeedom ain’t all that. *Witness me snap.*
Still, you can take a lot of great information from this novel and if you’re like me, it will have you going, “Oh, that explains a lot” so many times. It explains a lot even about the rise of Trump. I was also reminded of a recent Cracked.com podcast about class in America, and I started to wonder if it was class or nations. In my own family for example, I remember seeing certain relatives as lower class (I guess I was a snobby kid), but in retrospect perhaps I was comparing my Appalachian relatives to my Deep South relatives, the Appalachians seeming more uncouth at the time.
One more thing of interest is that Woodard writes that the nations are only becoming more entrenched in their differences, because in our mobile society people are moving to places where they find people more like them. You might think that people moving around away from their origins would help to integrate us more, but on the contrary he argues that we are just gravitating toward like-minded people. I suppose from my own example, that’s true. I feel quite at home here in New York, far from my rural childhood, and it’s much more in line with my political and social leanings, but that is just my own experience–I’m not sure how scientific his reasoning is on this.
There’s so much to unpack in this book. I suggest you go read the article linked at the top (after you read all this review first) and see if you want to know more. I wish that more people I know had read it so I could discuss the nations at length and how it relates to current politics and society.