A Continent Divided


The Nine Nations of North America, by Joel Garreau, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981, 427 pp., $14.95.

Every now and then you come across a book that fundamentally changes the way you look at the world. It gives you a new map of reality that makes more sense, somehow, than the maps you were using before—and, after reading it, nothing seems quite the same, ever again. Try as you may, once you've read such a book, you can never go back to thinking about things in just the same way you thought about them before. The old maps are still there—and perhaps even still useful—but the new map has been superimposed on them and won't go away.

Howard Katz's The Warmongers is a book like that. So are some of Robert Anton Wilson's writings, in an odd way. And so is Joel Garreau's The Nine Nations of North America.

Garreau contends that you get a clearer picture of the social, political, and economic affairs on this continent if you ignore artificial national, state, and provincial boundaries and instead view things in terms of nine identifiable cultural and economic regions. Each of these regions, he maintains, has its own special characteristics that make it an identifiable entity, clearly distinguishable from the other "nations." And the cultural and economic factors that set each of the nine apart from one another are the underlying reality that shapes affairs within each "nation" and the relations among them.

The nine nations Garreau describes range from the Foundry (the industrial region surrounding the Great Lakes) to Dixie, MexAmerica (southwest United States and Mexico), and Ecotopia (a strip of land running along the West Coast from central California all the way to southern Alaska). Of the nine, only two—Dixie and Quebec—are wholly contained within a single country; perhaps the most fascinating of the nine is the Islands—a Caribbean confederacy stretching from Miami to Caracas.

A newspaperman by trade, Garreau traveled over 100,000 miles gathering material for Nine Nations, and he writes with a journalist's flair. By the time you finish his grand tour, each of the "nations" has come alive; "the Bread-basket" is now a place more real for me than, say, Indiana.

The book has its flaws; much of Garreau's writing is impressionistic and selectively focused to strengthen the national identities he postulates. On more than one occasion one wishes for more hard facts and less symbolism. And at times, his style treads a precarious line between profundity and cutesiness. (Example: his description of the border between the Empty Quarter and the Breadbasket as "the place where carbohydrates become more important than hydrocarbons." On one level, that's pithy and insightful; on another, it's a bit too glib.)

Nonetheless, Nine Nations is a book well worth reading. By the time you're through you understand, in a broad sense, the social, economic, and political dynamics of North America in a way you probably wouldn't if you thought only in terms of traditional political boundaries.

(In a section entitled "Aberrations," Garreau allows that some places—Manhattan, Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington, D.C.—are enclaves unto themselves. Writing about Alaska, he notes that "the far right is so far right that it has been known to link up with the left on some issues.…The only two Libertarian Party members in North America elected to state office live in Alaska.")

As Garreau himself cautions in the preface, the book is not to be taken too seriously. Regional identities notwithstanding, the United States and Canada, Colorado and Indiana, will continue to exist as political units. The new map does not entirely supersede the old. But Nine Nations is likely to be a hot topic of conversation on the cocktail party circuit these days, and deservedly so. Score some points by being the first on your block to read it.

David F. Nolan, an advertising executive, lives in the Empty Quarter.