Around the Region

‘The Map Thief’, a book review

By Shirley Wright

   I just finished reading “The Map Thief” by Michael Blanding, published by Gotham Books earlier this year. It was one of those books that I wanted to read, but each time I picked it up I put it back down. The time that Forbes Smiley spent in Sebec Village is not a time that I like to remember. My husband and I own a home in Sebec Village and hated to see this whole event unfold. Small towns need to stick together and this one almost came unglued.

   When I finally began reading Blanding’s book, however, I was impressed with his writing style. He is a very good writer who took a controversial subject, in both Sebec Village and in the rest of the world, and moved the reader away from all the conflict, at least in the beginning. 
   After setting out to answer the initial question on page 4, “Why did a respected map dealer at the height of his profession betray those closest to him — and deface the artifacts he spent his life preserving?”  Blanding’s book begins by plunging the reader into the history of mapmaking. Blanding himself is a self-proclaimed map lover and that love of maps comes out as he explores how maps were made, who made them, and why they were made. I didn’t know how political mapmaking was until I read this book.  Blanding’s history of maps spans across history; he even explains ancient mapmaking ideas. The focus, however, is on the exploration of the New World, or America. And, this is where Forbes Smiley focused as he began his map business. 
   As the book progresses, Blanding follows Smiley’s past through working in the world of rare books and then into the exclusive world of map acquisition and selling. It is a cut-throat world out there, in terms of map buying and selling. It seems that Smiley thought he could “outwit” this world but it all fell apart on him.
   As Blanding follows Smiley through the years, he interviews many map dealers. None is as vocal as a man named Graham Arader, who is quoted often in the book. It is pretty clear that Smiley was not liked among map dealers. It is apparent that Blanding did extensive research through many institutional  records to write this book. He must have spent hours perusing newspaper articles and town records. It is amazing that he was able to find so much information, and he is able to put it all together in a way that makes a good read.
   Blanding includes extensive lists of maps that were stolen, which ones were recovered and which ones were not. The lists are helpful to the reader to first of all see the enormity of the theft and the historical value of the maps. When this is put together with the history of mapmaking in the book, it is almost overwhelming to conceptualize. The maps that were stolen were worth a lot of money, no doubt, but the historical significance was astonishing. As I read the book, I couldn’t believe someone would deface historical property like that. As a lover of history, it made me sick.
   When the story moves to Sebec, however, the book kind of fell apart for me. Gone are the direct quotes from multiple people. Gone is the limitless research. As I read Blanding’s words, it was clear that he missed some very important points.
   I was thinking the book might answer some questions that I had from the Sebec perspective, but it did not. I always wondered if Smiley focused his hate on the Moriarty family solely for the purpose of wanting to purchase the old Wyman Store for his restaurant business. Was the fight really about a marina? The Wyman Store is the historical gem of the Village. 
   The other question I’ve always wondered about and didn’t see any reference to in the book is this — how could owning a federal post office help a map thief? Or, did it?  The store in Sebec Village supported a post office. I have always wondered if priceless maps or as I should say, priceless stolen maps were mailed out of there. Hmmm, I didn’t get an answer to that question in Blanding’s book. 
   I also wondered if Smiley’s wife knew of his thefts. The book doesn’t touch on this. That is probably for the best, given that Blanding didn’t set out to ruin lives; he just reported fact. The book mentioned that Smiley struggled to make his payroll in Sebec. I wonder why? Why didn’t the business support itself, at least on some small scale? Was Smiley paying people too much? Was he paying for allegiance to his ideas?  Blanding didn’t touch on this either. I also expected more quotes from Sebec residents. There are few and those that are in the book are skewed to the side of supporting Forbes Smiley. 
   Of note, there is one big error in the book. On page202, it says that “After the sentence, Smiley sold his Sebec farmhouse and shops for a combined $125,000.” This is not correct. I talked to April Taylor, the new owner of the former Smiley home. She said she purchased the house directly from the Smileys and she paid quite a bit more than that just for the house. 
   It seemed like, in this part of the book, that Blanding had developed a bit of an affection for Smiley’s cause and his “facts” were trying to show that Smiley got a bad deal. There is a reference in the book to Smiley being like Robin Hood. I had to smile at that one. When I looked up the legend of Robin Hood, I couldn’t find anywhere in there that he robbed the rich and gave to the poor but stopped in the middle and built a multi-million dollar home on Martha’s Vineyard that the feds couldn’t touch. To me, that was a bad comparison. 
   All in all, the book is worth the read. Blanding himself is a nice enough guy; I met him on the Fourth of July in Sebec Village in 2013. I think he set out to write the story factually. From chapter to chapter, it seems like he wavers from exposing Smiley to trying to prove he’s a good guy. It left me a little confused.
   The history of maps made me start to look more closely at them; that was the best part of the book, in my opinion. I never noticed the nuances in a map. Blanding is a good writer, and he wrote a good story. He did short-change the people of Sebec, and that’s too bad, but the world at large won’t notice it. Maybe if he writes a sequel, he’ll focus more on how people felt to be taken advantage of and how they felt to be threatened as well as interviewing more thoroughly those who worked for Smiley in Sebec. That might also set out to help him answer his initial question, which is one of those questions that has to delve into feelings and psychology. Blanding’s initial question is left for the reader to answer.

Get the Rest of the Story

Thank you for reading your4 free articles this month. To continue reading, and support local, rural journalism, please subscribe.