Book Review | The Cartographers

Title: The Cartographers

Author: Peng Shepherd

Publisher: William Morrow

Published: 15 March 2022

Pages: 400

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I don’t remember when or where exactly I first heard about The Cartographers. I know it was sometime in the fall of 2021, and I immediately knew I wanted to read it. I ended up getting the book on 7 April. I went home that night, got ready for bed, then opened the book to start reading. The plan was to read the first couple of chapters and finish the rest the next day after work or over the weekend. It was already 8:45 pm and I did need to get some sleep. Cut to 3:45 am when I close the last page and finish the book. I think I took one bathroom break during that time, but other than that, I read straight through. As I told friends afterward, I don’t think that’s happened with a book since college or maybe even high school. I was completely pulled into the story and the characters and this idea of maps and place and had to finish it.

The story: Nell Young’s whole life and great passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field, and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map. When Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable, and also exceedingly rare. In fact, she’s probably holding the last copy in existence. . . because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.

Okay, first off, the mysterious person who is destroying all the 1930 New York State foldable gas station maps is not hard to figure out. But, I don’t really think it was supposed to be difficult to figure it out, at least for the reader. Because what we are supposed to focus on, at least in my opinion, is the question Nell’s dad asked her throughout her life.

What is the purpose of a map?

This book was about the relationships formed and destroyed by our own greed and selfishness. No, there wasn’t really a mystery going on in the book (there is a small twist at the end, that starts to be obvious, but I still think it’s enjoyable). The book was about how one person’s own obsession can end a friendship and tear apart a family, how we can become so hyperfocused that we lose sight of what’s real and what matters. The answer to Nell’s question is the point of the novel. What is the purpose of a map? To bring people together.

To address some of the negative reviews. I already pointed out that the mysterious person collecting all the maps isn’t supposed to be that hard to figure out. I will say, do I think the characters should’ve figured it out sooner, probably, but I can still let that go. Spoilers for this next part: there are some who point out that if Daniel could find Ramona’s shop by drawing a map on her business card to follow, why couldn’t Wally just draw a map of/to Agloe. First off, Ramona and Tamara were the actual cartographers of the friend group, not Wally. The second point is that there’s a difference between drawing a map of a store and drawing an entire town, even one as small as Agloe. The cartographer has to be as exact as possible to go back to the town and, this is my own headcanon, I’m betting that if Wally was a tiny bit off, it wouldn’t have let him in. Ramona is able to draw her store not only because she’s a good artist/cartographer, but also because she knows exactly where her store was and had a reference for it, unlike Wally, who had to work off of memory.

The last little part I want to talk about is the inspiration for the story. From 1930 to 1970, there were three major road map publishers in the United States: General Drafting Corporation, H.M. Gousha, and Rand McNally. General Drafting didn’t sell maps to a variety of small customers, but sold exclusively to gas station companies, what would later be Exxon Mobile. In the story, we are told that General Drafting created the first foldable road map. Previously, Rand McNally and Gousha were still having the coffee table type of map and who would want to take those on a road trip once the car was invented. I’m not sure if this is actually true but it works for the story. Anyways, back to actual, history. Once foldable gas station maps became standard, the fear of copyright started. How would you be able to tell if another mapping company just used your map survey to create their own? Easy, you create a trap, a town that doesn’t actually exist to fool other companies, which is what General Drafting did. They created the town of Agloe, an anagram of the founders and his assistant’s initials, at the intersection in the Catskill Mountains: NY 206 and Morton Hill Road, north of Roscoe, NY. In the 1950s, General Drafting saw that McNally had Agloe on their maps and so, they sued for copyright infringement. McNally came back and said, no, there is a town there. And there really was. Because the town had appeared on the map, the people near the area thought this was a real place and so a general store was set up in the 1950s. The store did go out of business and Agloe is no longer officially on maps. But what a great story to draw inspiration from and it does prove the quote correct. What is the purpose of a map…to bring people together.

Happy Reading Darlings!

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