‘The Map Thief’ examines an obscure but intriguing world

Michael Blanding’s latest book may be titled The Map Thief, but it’s not merely the twisted tale of a singular criminal. Blanding uses the real-life thefts by E. Forbes Smiley, a New England rare map dealer, to explore the compelling history of mapmaking and the insular world of collectors and dealers.

A map-lover himself, Blanding writes with enthusiasm about the stories early maps tell us about humanity’s changing understanding of the world. Maps became more accurate over time, but early mistakes were sometimes fascinating. Blanding notes that maps showing Florida in the shape of a saucepan under a big lake where the Carolinas are has become a favorite with modern-day collectors.

Blanding reveals political intrigue, outrageous deceit and, yes, even theft hidden in the lines and whorls of early maps. There are plenty of moments when the reader has to wonder, “Why didn’t I know that?”

For example, why do we live on a continent called America and not Columbia or Isabellia? Sure, the land mass was named for Amerigo Vespucci, but why? Blanding explains that an obscure German mapmaker made the decision. Like everyone else in Europe, he was fascinated with Vespucci’s descriptions of the new land. While Colombus continued to insist he had found a passage to Asia and the biblical Garden of Eden, Vespucci wrote of native women who never wore clothes and were “exceedingly lustful.”

Vespucci’s titillating letters were published across Europe (though Blanding writes that historians now question whether he ever even set sail). The intrigued mapmaker published the first atlas showing the New World as its own continent, surrounded by water — and named it America.

Blanding tucks great little historical trivia like that into his cohesive narrative. E. Forbes Smiley provides a great structure for exploring how mapmaking evolved: He collected and sold and sometimes stole the most important maps that showed that evolution. Hiding his crimes was often easy; as Blanding notes, the rarest and most historical maps can be purchased and displayed on a wall, and no one might notice the map was stolen from a library or museum.

Smiley exploited that weakness in the rare-map community, a conglomeration of librarians, historians and wealthy collectors. When the collectors were willing to pay, Smiley was willing to steal from the libraries and museums.

Though Blanding had only two interviews with Smiley, the map thief was extraordinarily open before he cut off contact. He explained his thefts, why he felt he had to steal in order to pay his mounting expenses and how he felt he betrayed fellow map-lovers who trusted him as an expert in early New England.

The Map Thief is also a well-told examination of a flawed man. Smiley admits to Blanding that he wondered whether he would be shunned on Martha’s Vineyard after he was released from prison.

“Through his AA meetings and parents of his son’s friends, however, he began meeting other high-powered business-people who had crashed and burned in their careers,” Blanding writes.

Smiley’s explanation for their acceptance of him: “There are a lot of broken toys on this island,” he said.

Blanding interviewed most of the major rare map dealers in the United States and several curators of important collections in libraries. His interviews reveal a deep and sometimes intimate understanding of how Smiley betrayed his friends and colleagues. People had to get therapy after meeting and trusting this man.

There is high drama here in this story of a man who thought he could somehow get ahead of his problems, even as they mounted and ultimately buried him. Blanding deftly handles the tension of knowing that Smiley will be caught and — without spoiling the end — the author is able to find more than even prosecutors were able to prove.

Blanding, the author of The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink, is a talented researcher, the sort of author who is clearly excited by uncovering new information. And he makes what was known by historians and dealers like Smiley accessible and fun to read.

In the end, The Map Thief is an enjoyable exploration of an obscure aspect of history. Before there were maps, the world around us was unknown, mysterious, even ominous. Blanding makes a compelling argument that the history of the mapmakers who were discovering and recording the new world is important, even if largely forgotten. Reading The Map Thief, you can feel the excitement of those early cartographers as they eagerly recorded the discovery of tantalizing new frontiers.

Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.