Sunday, May 1, 2016

Is Underground

Is Underground
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Ages: 11+

Originally titled Is, this book took its present title when it was re-published in the U.S. By naming it after its main character Is Twite, younger sister of the illustrious Dido, Joan Aiken ensured the ninth(?) installment in the Wolves Chronicles (after The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket, The Whispering Mountain, The Stolen Lake, Limbo Lodge a.k.a. Dangerous Games, The Cuckoo Tree and Dido and Pa) would be practically impossible to locate in an internet search, with or without the added word "Underground." The trick, in case you ever want to try it, is to include the words "Joan Aiken Wolves Willoughby Chase series" in your search. Good luck.

I actually own both versions of this book - Is and Is Underground - the one published in the U.K., bound in a single volume with Cold Shoulder Road; the other a U.S. edition with cover art by the great Edward Gorey. Besides the title, there are other interesting differences, such as the word "football" being replaced with "soccer" - which came as a bit of surprise in the middle of a book otherwise written in a strong British dialect. It made me exclaim, "Croopus! There's some havey-cavey editing going on here." It'll be days, maybe weeks, before I stop saying things like that. The earthy, distinctive lingo spoken by Dido and Is Twite is that infectious.

Both versions of Is have been on my books-to-read shelf for a long time - almost, perhaps, since their author (1924-2004) was alive. I had enjoyed all the previous books, plus a subsequent one (Midwinter Nightingale) that I read out of sequence. Nothing in particular stopped me from reading it, except one can only really read one book at a time, and I've had plenty of other stuff to read. I must give Aiken credit, though; as soon as I picked it up, I fell right back under the spell of her unique period of alternate-history Britain, when instead of all those Hanoverian Georges and Williams in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Stuart line with its Scots brogue retained the throne of a land infested with wolves and villains with flamboyantly fiendish designs. It was as if I never left, slipping comfortably into the familiar surroundings of Croopuses and Havey-Caveys and relentlessly strange imagery, and dastardly deeds so ludicrously over-the-top that you would be mad at Aiken for imposing on your willingness to suspend disbelief, if only they didn't bear a chilling similarity to certain evil deeds being done in our time.

Is, short for Isabett, is content to live in the remote woods of Blackheath Edge with her sourpuss older sister Penny, making dolls and hunting mushrooms and entertaining a mostly feral cat in the barn they call home. But then their Uncle Hosiah appears, pursued by wolves, and dies after extracting a promise from Is to look for his runaway son Arun. Feeling honor-bound to see the matter through, Is hikes to London, where she learns more than half the city's children have disappeared, including Arun and the king's own son, Prince Davie. Her only clue is a mysterious whisper of a place called Playland, to which children both highborn and low are enticed by the promise of a life of leisure. Only Is seems to have the sense to ask, "But how does it pay?" She finds her way on board the Playland express, a monthly night train from London that takes as many as 200 kiddies north to the separatist kingdom of Humberland and its ruinous, industrial hell of a capital, Blastburn. There, instead of the promised stay at the Hotel Joyous Gard, they are worked like slaves in coal mines extending under the sea, and a dangerous iron foundry, and other manufacturing plants, and where nearly everyone is forced to live underground, out of sight of the sun.

In Blastburn, domain of the so-called Gold Kingy, children from 5 to 20 years old are taken from their parents and worked to death in miserable, hazardous conditions. And since this policy has already pretty much wiped out the younger generation of the local population, the economy depends on nobbling little 'uns from the south. Meantime, Gold Kingy is trying to recruit soldiers for an invasion of the south, hoping to take over the whole country before the country comes after him. The result is a nightmarish idea of the worst that greed can do to a society, a self-defeating nastiness so brutal that it seems absurd - until you pause to think about some of the variations of self-defeating nastiness to which the populations of whole countries have meekly submitted within the last 100 years. Then it becomes not so much a silly attempt to top nine previous books' worth of bizarre villainy, as a reduction to the bare essentials of certain horrors in our world's recent past, present, and possible near future. It kind of comes down to this, Aiken seems to be saying, whether you happen to think of child soldiers in East Africa or child suicide bombers in the Middle East, whole populations starved or worked to death by communist dictatorships, or families pulled apart by the policies of fascist states. If it seems stupid, that's because it is. If you think it couldn't happen, behold - it has happened, is happening and will happen again.

What isn't likely to happen is the streak of luck that allows Is to lead the people of Blastburn to freedom. It just so happens, for starters, that Gold Kingy is another uncle of hers - Roy Twite by name - and he has some funny superstitions. He thinks his grandfather, Is's 102-year-old great-grandpa, has a secret formula for longevity. He suspects his aunt, Is's weather-sensing great-aunt Ishie, of being a witch. He even fears Is a little bit, both because she knows something about Good King Dick down south, and because of a little prophetic dream she tells him about. Then there's the stroke of luck that enables Is to communicate by thought-waves with other children trapped in the coal mines. Another is her discovery that the local cat-boy - a kid who sincerely believes he is a cat, and lives accordingly - is really her cousin Arun. And finally, there's... well, that would be saying too much.

Let's just say, all these strokes of luck strike none too soon to save the people who deserve saving. Luckiest of all is the appearance of Is herself, at just the right moment, displaying precisely the nerve and activity and take-no-nonsense attitude that the situation requires. With the help of a little magic, a little madness of just the right kind, and a lot of luck, she gives a network of oppressed child-slaves the cue they've been waiting for to rise up and set themselves free. It makes you realize how hard it must be to manage a similar uprising where there isn't anyone with the magic, luck, or leadership Is has.

Aside from that, it's just an over-the-top silly kids' thriller, full of gruesome thrills - like how many ways people can come to a sticky end in a place like Blastburn - and notes of grief, and quirky characters, and whimsical notions, from a night train for runaways denuding London of its youth to a monster whose cruel methods of execution include shutting a woman up inside a grid of rolling, floor-to-ceiling library stacks. Besides tantalizing us with the names of songs and stories we will never hear, it teases us with riddles - most of which we have to figure out on our own. It indulges in flights of black humor, such as the image of a cat crushed by a steam-hammer being picked up and leaned against the side of a house, like a board. And it challenges us to decipher journal entries scribbled by a main character whose spelling is as sketchy as her surroundings. Why can't these Twite girls ever find themselves in a normal situation? Answer: It would be less fun for us.

The remaining books in this series, in order, are Cold Shoulder Road, Midwinter Nightingale, and The Witch of Clatteringshaws. The two I haven't already read are at the top of my short-term to-read pile. Aiken's numerous, imagination-rich books include the three "Felix" novels (Go, Saddle the Sea, etc.), a dozen or so "Arabel and Mortimer" stories, three books featuring a boy sleuth named Ned (In Thunder's Pocket, etc.), a half-dozen romances based on the works of Jane Austen (Mansfield Revisited, etc.), Midnight Is a Place, The Cockatrice Boys, Mice and Mendelson, and many other titles ranging from period romances to sci-fi/fantasy tales and modern mystery-thrillers. I have a deep affection for her style, which some (I think) have tried but failed to imitate. But with so many of her works yet to be read, I don't feel cheated.

Friday, April 29, 2016

State Flags, Part 4

Part 4: State Flags that Totally Suck

Behold Idaho's state flag: another effing state seal in the middle of an effing blue field! Aargh! To add insult to psychic injury, it clearly says "Great Seal of the State of Idaho" in the border around the seal, and yet there's also a fancy device below saying STATE OF IDAHO, in case we've become confused. Inside the seal are more words: "Esto perpetua" (it is forever), beneath which are two vistas, one inside the other, packed with allegorical imagery. The elk's head is probably the best thing in it. It should maybe be the only thing, blown up really big on a field any color but blue.

This flag is also fairly obnoxious, for reasons that should be familiar by now; it says KANSAS in big bold letters, and other than the sunflower up at the top, that's the best thing it has going for it. I'll suggest right off the bat that they scrub everything but the sunflower off this wreck, which also features blue and yellow rope - what is with that? - and a farmer plowing a field with two horses, and some Indians chasing bison, and a couple of covered wagons that seem to be drawn by swine heading away from a house with a chimney, and a sun setting over purple mountain majesty, and a steamboat on some body of water, and 34 stars (don't ask), and a banner with the Latin words "Per aspera ad astra," meaning "through difficulties to the stars." From anywhere but close-up, all you can see of this, besides the sunflower and the word KANSAS, is a vague impression of a landscape with the sun setting behind it.

Kentucky's flag features the words, duh, COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY on a, duh, blue field, above sprigs of goldenrod (the state flower), surrounding a way-too-tiny white disk in which Daniel Boone appears to be shaking hands with Henry Clay, accompanied by even more words - once again, "United we stand, divided we fall." The only thing I would keep is the sprigs of goldenrod.

So here is Maine's flag: another pair of allegorical figures (a farmer and a sailor) flanking a shield full of state-seal-type symbolism, with the state's name spelled out below it, its Latin motto DIRIGO (I lead) above, and over all a single star surrounded by rays. Inside the shield, a moose reclines under a pine tree. Maine needs to decide whether its symbol is a pine tree, a moose, or a star surrounded by rays, and just go with it.

The Massachusetts flag would be greatly improved simply by making the emblem on it much bigger. It is currently so tiny that it looks downright stingy on that mostly empty white field. Most certainly illegible are the Latin words "Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem" (By the sword she seeks quiet peace under liberty) running around the image of an Algonquian Indian holding his bow and arrow in a posture of peace. Also incorporated are a star, a length of rope, and a severed arm gripping a sword blade-up, which has some allegorical interpretation like "We would rather lose our right arm than forget that our liberty was achieved through warfare." Evidently the blue shield on a white field has some historic significance in the state's military history, so I'll refrain from suggesting that the whole design be replaced by either the severed arm with the sword or the Indian with the star at his shoulder. But what Massachusetts has right now is a flag that nobody can see. What's on it should, for starters, be bigger.

Alas Minnesota, another former home state of mine, thy flag totally sucks! There have been multiple versions of the Minnesota flag, each very different from the others, but all unified around the bone-headed idea of putting the state seal in the center of the flag. Among other design elements, some of which are practically impossible to identify with the naked eye, are the word MINNESOTA (again, admitting failure from the start), three dates (the founding of Fort Snelling, statehood, and the adoption of the first state flag), a wreath of the pink-and-white ladies' slipper (the state flower), the French words "L'Etoile du Nord" (star of the north), 19 gold stars arranged to suggest the points of a bigger star (Minnesota being the 19th state to be added after the original 13), and a ring of little gold circles representing all the counties in the state. At any distance, these circles look just like one continuous gold ring, rather spoiling the symbolism. Plus, the central image combines a scene of an Indian riding by on a horse, a farmer plowing his field, a gun leaning against a tree stump, some water nearby and trees in the distance, and I know not what else; you really have to zoom in to catch all the detail. Which is just plain ridiculous. Minnesota could just make a star out of 19 smaller stars, surround it with 87 tiny gold disks, and call it a flag.

That vexillological association I mentioned a while back, NAVA, determined Montana's state flag to be the third-worst state, territory, or provincial flag in the U.S. and Canada put together. They cited the tendency of flags based on a blue field to look alike, and the obnoxiousness of words and complex seals appearing on the flag - basically, what I've been saying all along. What it has going for it, though, and what makes it only mostly suck in my opinion, is that you can read the word MONTANA - which is a start, even if a bad one. It also contains the Spanish motto "oro-y-plata" (silver-and-gold), though much less visibly; a waterfall, a sunset, some farming and mining implements, and other scenic frou-frou that is almost too crude to identify, but which wouldn't improve the flag if they were depicted in vivid realism, because they're too tiny anyway. What this state needs is a crassly simple image that captures the whole idea of Montana - like, say, two horizontal bands, red on green, with a wavy blue line between them. People would look at it and say, "Hey! A river runs through it!"

This is the flag of Nebraska, another state in which I have lived, but not since I was old enough to vote. NAVA voted it the second-worst state, territorial, or provincial flag in the U.S. and Canada; and the one that made last place has already been replaced. So according to those who know, this is apparently as bad as they get. It's a blue field - again - with the state seal in the middle - again - and text around the edge of it telling you that it's the state seal - again - along with the month, day, and year of statehood. Inside the border of the seal are a ribbon bearing the motto "Equality before the law," and mountains, a train, a blacksmith at his anvil, a farm, a forest, a riverboat, etc., and the only reason I think it improves on Oregon's two-color flag is that it adds a third color (silver, in addition to gold and blue). The art might be slightly better, too. But there's just too much going on, more than a flag can carry well. Nebraska's state highway signs did it better, when they showed a simple illustration of a covered wagon, representing the pioneer trail. That's what needs to be on this flag - that and nothing else.

New Hampshire's flag, from the bottom up, comprises a blue flag (oh, Lord), with a ring of laurel sprigs and nine stars surrounding the state seal (yes, I know this tune: N.H. is the ninth state), and inside the border of the seal it tells you it's the seal of the state of New Hampshire (of course), then another laurel wreath, and then an allegorical scene depicting the Revolutionary War frigate Raleigh beached on yellow New Hampshire granite, with the sun rising over the sea beyond it and the stars and stripes waving from its stern. This epitome of all that sucks about state flags that suck needs to be replaced, like yesterday. A good start would be to clear out all the greenery, the words, and all the other stuff holding the picture of the Raleigh down to microscopic size, and let the ship fill the canvas, as it were.

Here's the front, or obverse, side of Oregon's flag, which I have already mentioned...
...and here's the reverse side. Obviously, not all flags look the same on both sides; some, particularly the ones with words or state seals on them, look on the reverse just like a mirror image of the obverse. Oregon is currently the only state that has a different design on the reverse of its state flag. Cutting to the chase, it would probably be a better flag if the reverse were the obverse, period. All this big, bold text - STATE OF OREGON, 1859 - and the crude, single-color state seal in the middle, smacks of a lack of aesthetic sense. I can detect an eagle, and a covered wagon, and a sunset, and mountains, and trees, and ships, and a ribbon that says "The Union," and some other stuff I can't quite identify, but that's about it. In the spirit of Woody Allen's "The food is bad, and the portions are too small," I would sum it up by saying the imagery is crudely executed, but it's not really the kind of imagery that should be on a flag. Flip back to the New Mexico flag, Oregonians, and try to work out what they did right and you did wrong. But I'll give you a hint: it's everything. Just keep the beaver and throw the rest away, and you may save Oregon from having the worst state flag in the country.

Guess what's on Vermont's flag! A blue field - check! The state's name and motto ("Freedom and Unity") - check! A shield framed by crossed sprays of greenery - check! It's got a deer's head at the top, growing out of one of those blue-and-gold rope devices. And inside the main body of the state seal, it depicts a tiny bull standing under a pine tree with some white sheaves of grain receding into the distance. The distance is what really makes it: first forests, then mountains, and then a full-color sunset. It's like a silk-screened painting - not something your arthritic old auntie is likely to embroider on her own. Vermont has a troubled history with its flags, including a couple versions that were confusingly similar to the U.S. flag. It really should go back to its first one, the Green Mountain Boys' flag, which had 13 stars randomly scattered over a blue canton on a green field.

Wisconsin's flag is so bad, it's hilarious. It, too, has gone through many versions, and all of them have been bad; but what started bad just kept getting worse. And now it's as bad as ever, with one of those state seals in the middle of a blue field (it's always been there, but not always so small), and WISCONSIN 1848 printed on it in huge white characters. The seal also incorporates the word FORWARD, a badger, and various images symbolizing sailing, farming, mining, and manufacturing, such as a cornucopia and a stack of lead ingots. To put it in the plainest language, there are three main problems with this flag: too much crap, packed in too small; stupidly huge lettering spelling out stuff that wouldn't have to be spelled out if the flag was doing its job; and the fact that it looks like about 30 other state flags, apart from the obvious lettering. I'm sure a big wedge of cheese would be more recognizable than this. The badger all by itself, if it didn't to closely resemble the beaver on the back of the Oregon flag, could do it. Heck, that quartered shield, with the arm and hammer, anchor, plow, pickax and shovel would do it, if blown up to fill the whole flag. That would also push away the hackneyed blue field, an obvious benefit.

West Virginia's flag from 1905 to 1907 bore a crude depiction of three sprigs of mountain laurel on a white field, surrounded by a blue border. Since then it has gone through several revisions to arrive at its current depiction of a state seal on a white field (oh, novelty!), surrounded by a blue fringe. The seal is topped by a ribbon naming STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA, and bottomed by the unreadably tiny motto "Montani semper liberi" (mountaineers are always free), with sprays of rhododendron wrapped around it and actually tied at the bottom with a bit of ribbon. The allegorical figures inside the shield, also too tiny to be made out distinctly except at high magnification, include a farmer and a miner, with the tools of their trade around them, and a pair of crossed rifles with a cap signifying liberty achieved through armed conflict, and at the very center a boulder with the date of statehood inscribed on it. It's so ugly, it causes pain. West Virginians are supposed to salute this flag with a pledge that goes on for more than 40 words, including "Mountaineers are always free." It would be an easier pill to take if it wasn't so fugly. The mountain laurel design would be better than this. Or maybe just the two crossed rifles with the cap on top.

Conclusion: The point of a state flag is to be a recognizable symbol of the state it belongs to. Too many U.S. state flags fail by placing similar imagery in the middle of more or less the same field of blue, at a scale that makes it hard to distinguish from other state flags. Some of them try to repair this defect by adding another to it: spelling out the state's name in block letters, which defeats the purpose of having a symbol tell you what you need to know. The many states whose flags partly or mostly suck should take more notice of the few that totally rule - not to copy their imagery (please!), but to understand what having a flag is all about. Then maybe they can design one that does what it is supposed to do.

State Flags, Part 3

Part 3: State Flags that Pretty Much Suck

So, this is Connecticut's flag. As will become a recurring theme from here on, eye-strain is a serious problem. You really have to view it at close range, or through a spyglass, to recognize that the objects on that fancy shield are three grape vines, each bearing three bunches of grapes, and that the motto on the ribbon beneath is "Qui transtulit sustinet", Latin for "He who transplanted, sustains." Let me say it now for the first time: State seals should not be depicted on flags. This one could be worse; the original state seal had 15 grape vines on it. There is no clear consensus about what the current three signify; possibly three early settlements in the Connecticut colony.

This flag has one line of readable text - the date on which Delaware ratified the U.S. constitution, becoming the first state - and one, on the ribbon inside the yellow lozenge, that says "Liberty and Independence" in letters too small and faint to read even at fairly close range. Inside that lozenge is sort of a seal within a seal, the outer featuring a farmer with his hoe, opposite a hunter with his rifle - oh! how that must gripe Joe Biden! Between them, even smaller, are a sailing ship, a braid of yellow and blue rope, an ear of corn, a shock of wheat, and a cow so tiny that it looks like a dog, plus a lot of space-wasting decorative frou-frou. It could all be blown up without pushing anything out of the frame; or, by leaving some stuff out, what remains could be magnified even more. How about just crossing the rifle and the hoe in the center of the flag and leaving it at that?

Florida's flag is the same as Alabama's, only with the addition of the Florida state seal smack in the center. In 1985, the design was updated with an even busier version of the state seal than was there before. It features a Seminole woman scattering hibiscus flowers on the shore near a palm tree, with a steam ship in the background passing in front of a sunset, and the ring around it has room not only for the the words "Great Seal of the State of Florida" but also for "In God We Trust." On top of all this tiny, crowded, hard-to-see stuff, there is the baggage of African American civil rights. State laws that kept black folks on the fringes of society passed shortly after the Civil War, coinciding with a flag design that used the St. Andrew cross as a thinly veiled reminder of the Confederate stars and bars. Maybe they should just put a big white star in the middle of a blue field, like the flag of the short-lived Republic of West Florida (1810), and call it a flag. Or, they could take the seal off and put the Bourbon saw-teeth back on the St. Andrew cross, to distinguish it from Alabama's flag. Heck, a Miami dolphin would be an improvement over this!

In concept, Georgia's is a pretty straightforward flag: three horizontal bars, alternating red-white-red; a blue canton with a circle of 13 stars representing the original colonies; within it, a colonial figure standing with sword drawn under a three-columned arch representing the branches of the government... But then there's all this text. It says "Constitution" above the arch, "In God We Trust" under it, and "Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation" on a sort of marquis winding through it. All that eye-strain puts this in the "kind of sucks" category, though if you lower your expectations and stop trying to read the words, it's otherwise a pretty decent design.

The flag of Illinois displays most of the imagery of the state seal, excepting the decorative border; that, at least, is a mercy. There's already too much stuff packed into the emblem on this white field. In front of a sunrise over some river or other, there's an eagle perched on a rock bearing two dates - 1818, the year of Illinois' statehood, and 1868, when the state seal was redesigned - though it has been updated several times since then. There's a red, white, and blue, stars-and-stripes shield (13 stars, of course) apparently crushing an olive branch against the stubbly ground; and caught in the eagle's beak is a patently unreadable state motto with black text on a red ribbon. At high magnification, and with some effort, you can detect that it reads "State Sovereignty, National Union" - though, thanks to the guy who designed it being a passive-aggressive bastard (source), the first part of the motto appears below the second, and the word "sovereignty" is upside-down to boot. Oh yeah, and there's the name ILLINOIS down there, too. Why bother having all this symbolism if you're just going to give the game away? The state should decide between either putting ILLINOIS in big block letters on a white field, or maybe just letting that eagle hover with the stars-and-stripes shield in its claws.

So, Iowa's flag: the horizontal blue, white, and red bands are great; the eagle is all right; and the bold red name IOWA, though unnecessary, is at least legible. But then there's this long streamer caught in the eagle's beak, and here's what is written on it: "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain." It's like they had Yoda wrote it, to make it hard even for people with eyes sharp enough to make out the text. Couldn't they have stuck something more symbolic in the eagle's beak, like crossed stalks of wheat and corn? Interestingly, the tricolor design is a nod to Iowa having previously belonged to France.

Michigan's flag is another hot mess. It features three (3) Latin mottos: "E pluribus unum" (Out of many, one), Tuebor (I will defend), and "Si Quæris Peninsulam Amœnam CIRCUMSPICE" (If you seek an amiable peninsula, LOOK AROUND" - emphasis in the original. It's got an elk, a moose, an eagle, and various items of greenery, and all sized for pretty good visibility. But then, between these framing creatures and the word TUEBOR, there's a tiny, tiny man standing on the shore of a peninsula with a sunrise behind him, holding a rifle and raising his hand in greeting. The description of what all this stuff signifies is so much yak, yak, yak. It makes me tired, starting with my eyes. An eagle, an elk, a moose, and a shield bearing the device TUEBOR would probably be enough.

Like unto it is the flag of my current home state, Missouri. Working from the outer edges in, it starts OK with bands of red, white, and blue signifying, among other things, that it once belonged to France; and at the center, inside a ring of blue, a circle of 24 white stars identifying Missouri as the 24th state. But the trouble stars with the tiny, busy, eye-strain-inducing state seal inside that circle, containing (among other things) another set of 24 stars standing for the same thing as the first. Within that seal are three blocks of text: first the Roman numeral for the year 1820, the year of the Missouri Compromise, though Missouri didn't achieve statehood until 1821; then the motto "United we stand, divided we fall," incongruously inscribed on a belt whose buckle signifies that the state can always secede from the union if need be (ha!); and the Latin motto "Salus populi suprema lex esto" (Let the good of the people be the supreme law). Inside the belt are a semicircle featuring the seal of the U.S. on white, a white crescent moon on blue representing growth, and a white bear silhouetted on red. All this forms a shield held up by two much larger grizzly bears (for strength and bravery), topped by a helmet that supposedly represents sovereignty. I have found a couple explanations of this seal that mention the meaning of the cloud surrounding the stars (referring to the troubles surrounding Missouri's admission to the union), but nowhere can I find an explanation for the green things that appear to be sprouting out of the neck of that knight's helmet. Seriously, this flag wouldn't lose any of its effect if you left out everything but the tricolour bands, the blue ring with 24 white stars, and maybe Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear inside it.

Mississippi's flag is pretty simple and direct, but it probably shouldn't be allowed to stand. On the one hand, the stars-and-bars canton is pretty much an upward-extended middle finger toward the African American community, which endured a century of relegation to second-class citizenry thanks to the racist laws propped up by the sort of people who could be expected to flaunt the Confederate colors on their post-Civil War state flag. It's sort of like showing the world the whole war to end slavery was fought for nothing. On the other hand, if you look at the Civil War as being primarily about the indivisibility of the union vs. state sovereignty, this little token of rebellion is, again, like showing the world the whole war to preserve the union was fought for nothing. Either way, it's a nasty piece of work. If Mississippians want their state to command more respect, they might want to reconsider the outfit they dress her in. It wouldn't take much. They could just bring back their old flag (1861-94), which featured a magnolia tree on a white field, with a white star on a blue canton, and a red band along the fly edge. Or they could go with the design that failed in a 2001 referendum, replacing the stars-and-bars with 20 white stars on a blue canton.

The North Dakota flag's official proportions are 26:33, making it unusually short, and they might want to stick with that, just to be unique. It's got an eagle emblem, similar to the seal of the U.S., clutching a ribbon bearing the tiny text "E pluribus unum" in its beak, and arrows and greenery in its claws; it has thirteen stars in two arcs, topped by a more or less crown-shaped pattern of radiating gold lines, all on a blue field with a fancy device saying NORTH DAKOTA at the bottom. Now suppose you just deleted everything but the 13 stars and that crown gizmo? They're practically the only design elements that stand out, except for that miserable text thingy at the bottom.

So Delaware had a farmer and a hunter; Michigan had an elk and a moose; Missouri had two grizzlies; New Jersey continues the tradition of having its escutcheon supported by a pair of allegorical characters, only this time they're goddesses - Liberty and Ceres. In case you miss the point, they stand on a ribbon that says "Liberty and Prosperity" - if you can squint hard enough to read it. Between them is a blue shield decorated with three plows (because agriculture is exactly what you think of when New Jersey comes up in conversation), topped by a knight's helmet, topped in turn by a horse's head (?), with some kind of plumes or foliage curling luxuriously over the goddesses' heads; this last bit, again, is never mentioned in explanations of these symbols. I like the flag's background color. I hope they keep that. But they should really do something about the scale of all these fussy details. Perhaps more shield and less (meaning none) of the horse's head/plumed helmet. And no words!!!

At least with New York's state flag, you can read the word under the goddesses: EXCELSIOR (higher). The goddesses this time are Liberty (the cap on a stick) and justice (the blindfold and scales). The version of this flag that flew until 1901 even had the same background color as New Jersey's. Between the goddesses, and beneath an eagle astride the globe, is a shield depicting the sun rising over a mountain beyond a river; and on the river, a square-rigged ship and a fore-and-aft-rigged sloop; a grassy meadow in the foreground. It's loaded with allegorical significance, right down to the details of the globe and the appearance of the goddesses; but you can't see much of it from far enough away not to have your eye taken out by its flapping in the wind. I would suggest either filling the center of the flag with the eagle and globe, or with the scene depicted on the shield, and letting it run right to the edges of the fabric.

Pennsylvania's copy of the "two figures holding up a shield" concept features two horses, and eagle, the virtually unreadable "Virtue, Liberty, and Independence," a sailing ship, a plow, some shocks of wheat, and a shade of blue to which I am starting to become numb. Without wasting any more time on this supremely refined piece of mediocrity - a contrast in every way to Oregon's miserable flag - I would suggest an easy fix: fill the entire flag with the contents of that shield. Have a ship sailing across a blue band, a plow cutting through a gold one, and sheaves of grain standing on a green one, period!

South Dakota's flag has changed a couple of times, and gotten worse each time. It started out with a nice yellow sun on a cyan field, with the unnecessary words SOUTH DAKOTA - THE SUNSHINE STATE twisted around it (1909-63). Then the field changed to royal blue and the state seal replaced the disk of the sun, redundantly identifying itself as STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA - GREAT 1889 SEAL (because that's how designers of state seals roll), and containing even tinier text saying, "Under God the People Rule," plus an indescribably tiny landscape which, suiting the word to the action, I shall now decline to describe. That was 1963-92. In 1992 the flag was "improved" again, by returning to the original cyan field and changing the state motto to THE MOUNT RUSHMORE STATE - without fixing any of the other problems, including the doubly redundant incorporation of the state's name on its own flag. Politicians: All they know how to do is take something mediocre and make it worse. If they had a lick of sense, they would put Mount Rushmore on the flag, period.

Utah's flag isn't terrible, compared to some of the others in this chapter. True, it has a blue field, which after viewing all these state flags is beginning to leave an indelible image on my optic nerve. It has an eagle presiding over two crossed American flags - really? Flags within flags? It has, like Illinois' flag, two dates on it - an almost unreadable 1847, the year the Mormon settlers arrived, and a somewhat larger 1896, when Utah became a state. It has the words(!) INDUSTRY and UTAH, at least one of which is an admission that the flag is failing at its job. And in the middle of it all, on a white shield, is a beehive - a symbol, don't you know, of industry! Why not just show a big beehive on a white field?

Virginia's current flag is an amusing diversion from the theme of two allegorical figures holding up a shield. Framed by the words (gah!) VIRGINIA and SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS (Thus always to tyrants), it depicts the triumph of Virtus, the Roman genius of military strength, over tyranny. The tyrant is depicted clutching a broken chain and a whip, with his crown fallen nearby; his vanquisher stands on his neck holding a spear and a sheathed dagger. All this is enclosed within a floral border, in a white disk, on a (ugh!) blue field. It could do without the word VIRGINIA; I might let the Latin motto ride. But perhaps there is a way for it to fill more of the flag, eliminating the need for floral borders and blue fields. Hmm?

So, these flags pretty much suck, but they're mostly fixable. If your state hasn't been mentioned by now... sorry, but its flag bites ass. Totally. See Part 4, if you dare.

State Flags, Part 2

Part 2: State Flags that Mostly Rule

Continuing a survey of the flags of the 50 U.S. states, with comments on why I think some of them rule and others suck - and perhaps a few suggestions how to reduce the vacuum pressure of the latter - I now present a few state flags that come close to greatness.

I don't have to tell you what state has this flag. It's pretty neat. It has a white lozenge (diamond shape) on a red field, with 25 white stars spaced along the blue border around the lozenge, and four larger blue stars inside it, divided by the one bit that I think takes away from it: the name ARKANSAS, in blue block letters. There are several explanations of what all this means. The 25 white stars are apparently a reminder that Arkansas was the 25th state admitted to the union. In the original design, without the unfortunate ARKANSAS, had three blue stars in a row across the center of the white lozenge. When the state officially adopted the design, it signed its name and put one star above the name and two below. The original three stars represented either that Arkansas was the third state created from the Louisiana Purchase (after Louisiana and Missouri), or three countries it had belonged to (Spain, France, and the U.S.), or the year three (1803) when the Louisiana Purchase became part of the U.S. In 1923, the state legislature added a fourth star representing the Confederate States of America, at first arranging the stars in a square with the state's name through the center; later they changed it again to allow a grouping of three stars to suggest those Louisiana Purchase-related meanings. Confusingly, there has also been some talk of a star somewhere on this flag representing Michigan, the "sister state" of Arkansas that was added to the union around the same time; but where that star might be, I can't tell. With the same shades of red and blue used in Old Glory, the Arkansas flag must (by law) be made in the U.S. and may be pledged with the words, "I salute the Arkansas Flag with its diamond and stars. We pledge our loyalty to thee." Frankly, I would take the word ARKANSAS across the center of the flag; but all this confusion about the meaning of the stars is really what knocks it out of Totally Rules contention.

I have lived in Arizona, and I love Arizona, and I think its flag is almost great. But it is not quite great, in my opinion, because the copper color of the star makes it hard to see against the 13 radiating bars of red and yellow filling the top half of the flag. The copper star represents the state's copper industry, but for my money it would look better in white. Anyhow, the red and yellow rays represent the colors of the Spanish empire (to which the area previously belonged), the 13 original U.S. states, and those glorious desert sunsets. The blue field of the bottom half represents the majestic Colorado River, though it's really more of a muddy trickle by the time it reaches my sometime hometown of Yuma. Screw the copper industry! Make that star white and we'll have something to talk about.

This is also a very likeable flag, with pretty bold imagery - a white field with one Old Glory red star in the upper hoist corner (a.k.a. canton), a large brown grizzly bear walking on a patch of Irish green grass in the center, and a thick red stripe across the bottom. The bear's body is shaded in two colors, seal (a dark brown also used to highlight the grass plot) and maple-sugar brown; it also has a red tongue, white eyes and fangs, and white claws on three of its feet. Again, though it is a reasonably simple picture that many California schoolchildren can probably draw with crayons, I think it could do without the unnecessary block-letters (also in seal) spelling "California Republic." There have been several versions of this flag through the state's history, including one that was simply a big red star in the center of a white field; on another, the field was split into two horizontal bars, the upper white, the lower red, with the bear rampant facing the red star in the canton. The size, position, and detail of bear, red stripe, and lettering have moved around a few times. So changing the flag would not be unprecedented. If I were to change it again, it would only be to remove the text. But as it is, it's already a nearly great flag.

The flag of Colorado would totally rule, if it didn't somehow remind me of the logo of a baseball team. It is a pretty straightforward design, though. The big, red, slightly off-center C stands for, duh, Colorado, and the red earth that gave the state its name. It clutches a golden disk, representing the sun, on top of fat blue and white strips suggesting the sky and the mountain snows of the Mile-High State. This version of the flag, adopted in 1964, is a slight improvement over the 1911 version in which the C and the sun-disk where much smaller, fitting inside the white stripe. It's a very recognizable and distinctive flag, its easy-to-see details making it suitable to include on state highway signs.

It isn't, strictly speaking, one of the 50 states, but the District of Columbia has this flag. Its three red stars above two red stripes across a white field are based on George Washington's coat of arms. It has unusually wide, 1:2 proportions.

Hawaii's flag is the only U.S. state flag to retain in its canton the U.K.'s Union Jack. Chalk it up to tradition; a version of this flag flew over Hawaii when it was still a British dependency. Now it also has eight horizontal stripes in alternating white, red, and blue; these represent the state's eight main islands. July 31 is Hawaiian flag day in the 50th state.

Here is another flag of a state I have lived in, and I think it's quite grand - except for the word INDIANA, which I could do with out. I mean, it's not even very easy to see without eye-strain. The torch and the rays emanating from it represent wisdom and liberty. The outer ring of 13 stars suggests the 13 original states of the union, with an inner arc of five stars below and one larger star directly above the torch, representing Indiana, the 19th state.

The North Carolina flag also has some hard-to-read text on it, but I forgive it because, when you step back, it is still very distinctive and straightforward. The text on the two gilt scrolls comprises the dates of the Mecklenburg Declaration (May 20th, 1775) and the Halifax Resolves (April 12th, 1776), two acts of colonial North Carolina's that helped pave the way for the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The guilt letters "N" and "C" need no explanation. That just leaves one white star in the center of a blue vertical band (union) and broad horizontal bands of white and red. The pledge to this state's flag reads: "I salute the flag of North Carolina and pledge to the Old North State love, loyalty, and faith."

Here is the flag of my native state, signed with its own name. On the gold scroll above its name, Nevada styles itself BATTLE BORN, because it became a state during the Civil War. The silver star represents, I believe, the silver deposits that, along with gold, brought the state its first prosperity. Those garland-like things are sprigs of sagebrush, the state flower. Nevada's flag went through several designs, including one that actually had alternating rows of gold and silver stars and the words GOLD and SILVER, in case anyone might miss the visual cue to the state's mineral resources. Another weird version had the letters of the word NEVADA clustered around the star, like symbols on a compass. The current design is a definite improvement. But the eye-strain factor is still there. I don't know why it can't just be a silver star, framed by sprigs of sagebrush with that gold BATTLE BORN device above it, blown up in the center of the blue field, no NEVADA necessary.

Guess which state has this flag. I think it would be perfect - superlative, even - without the absurdly unnecessary word OKLAHOMA. No one who knows anything about state flags would ever mistake it for any other state's flag. There actually was a version of this design without the OKLAHOMA; it was the state's official flag 1925-41. Why they felt it necessary to change it, I'll never know. The emblem is a buffalo-skin shield crossed by a peace-pipe and an olive branch (also a symbol of peace), representing both the Native Americans and white settlers. There are also six brown crosses on the shield and seven eagle feathers dangling from it, and every detail right down to the field's precise shade of blue has some symbolic or historic significance for the tribes that populated the territory before it became a state. While I would like to see it go back to a version without the word OKLAHOMA stamped across it, at least this is better than the state's original flag, featuring a big, blue-edged, white star with a blue number 46 on it, all over a red field. That method of symbolizing the 46th state rather sent the message, "We're too busy to care about this." The state flag salute says, "I salute the Flag of the State of Oklahoma: Its symbols of peace unite all people."

The gold ring around the portrait of George Washington bears the inscription, "The Seal of the State of Washington, 1889" - Every letter of which is completely unnecessary. It would really make the point just as well, if not better, with a picture of George W. twice as large, surrounded by a gold ring half as thick, and with no black trim inside or out. But it's really not bad as it is.

The Wyoming flag would be absolutely spectacular without that "Great Seal of the State of Wyoming" superimposed on the silhouette of a bison. But it's already contingently spectacular, so that's something. There is a nice, detailed explanation of the significance of the colors of this flag, but what interests me is the fact that the bison changed directions sometime after the design was officially adopted. It was meant to face the fly, signifying its freedom to roam; but some Daughters of the American Revolution maven suggested it would make more sense for the image, like the live animal, to face upwind; i.e. toward the hoist. The change was never legislated, but after the first batch of flags produced in 1917, all subsequent Wyoming flag bisons have looked toward the flagpole.

You know what this means... In Part 3 we will discuss state flags that Pretty Much Suck.

State Flags, Part 1

A while back, I enjoyed someone's online video and/or article about city flags, and why some of them rule and why some suck, and what can be done to design a flag for one's own city that totally rules. Thoughts about the principles of flag design have been circulating in my brain ever since. And then, a few days ago, I happened upon a page full of the flags of U.S. states and I realized that I immediately knew which ones ruled and which ones sucked.

Characteristics of flags that rule: They tend to be distinctive, direct, fairly simple, and not too difficult to see at medium range or to reproduce with a little attention to detail. They contain symbols which, when explained to the viewer, should have a memorable relevance to the place they represent.

Characteristics of flags that suck: Some contain too much fussy detail, which cannot be distinctly seen without eye strain except at very close range. Some tastelessly beg the question with block letters spelling out the place they represent (though a nice motto or key-word might be acceptable). Some contain politically polarizing imagery, such as the Confederate stars and bars. Some may be just ugly, crude looking, or unintentionally funny, showing a lack of an eye for proportion or color coordination.

As I explore these flag designs, please note that I am indebted to good old Wikipedia, which you should visit if you want to learn more. If you don't, my summaries should suffice...

Part 1: U.S. Flags that Totally Rule
Here is the flag of Alaska. It is eloquently simple: gold stars representing the Big Dipper constellation on a midnight-blue field representing the sky, and in the upper fly corner (towards the edge opposite the flagpole), a somewhat larger star representing the north star, Polaris. It really works for the northernmost state of the U.S.! Worth noting is that the Big Dipper is part of the Great Bear constellation, an animal that thrives in Alaska and symbolizes strength.

This is the flag of Alabama. It is similar to the flag of Florida, but simpler; Florida's version adds a state seal at the center of the red St. Andrew's cross, a.k.a. saltire, on a white field. It is derived from the saw-toothed Cross of Burgundy, the symbol of the Spanish Empire, of which southern Alabama was a part until the early 19th century. The only dent in the appeal of this clean-cut symbol is its history in connection with Jim Crow laws that disfranchised African Americans for some 100 years after the U.S. Civil War.

The flag of Louisiana, shown above, also totally rules. On a pretty blue field, it shows a mother pelican piercing her own breast and feeding the blood to her young; a Christian symbol of sacrifice and charity. The pure white ribbon below the birds' nest displays the state's motto: "Union, Justice, Confidence." I'm OK with it being just a little bit of an eye-strainer; there are far worse examples among the 50 state flags.

So this is Maryland's flag. Kind of psychedelic, isn't it? Alternating quarters of the flag show the heraldic arms of the colony's founder, George Calvert (Lord Baltimore), with red and gold bars serving as a stylized representation of the palisades of a fort. The opposite quarters show the arms of Baltimore's mother's family, the Crosslands, with a bottony cross (a Christian cross with buds at each end, representing the Trinity), divided in turn into alternating quarters of red and white. A gold bottony cross is supposed to decorate the top of the flagpole on which this flag is flown, at least at government buildings.

The state of New Mexico actually has a pledge to its own flag: "I salute the flag of the state of New Mexico, the Zia symbol of perfect friendship among united cultures." It is also worth noting that only Maryland, New Mexico, and two other states have flags that contain no blue. The red-on-yellow colors of this flag are inspired by the Spanish "crown of Aragon" coat of arms, while the central emblem represents the Zia tribe's symbol for the sun. So it pays homage to the Spanish and Native American cultures that preceded American settlement of that state, while also just being a nice, clean, memorable design that coordinates well with the arid southwestern part of the country.

Ohio's flag just kills me. It's not even rectangular! Officially known as the Ohio burgee (meaning the pennant of a naval organization), the swallowtail design honors the state's waterways, including the Ohio River and Lake Erie. Meanwhile, the five alternating bands of red and white symbolize the state's roads. Pointing into the flag from the hoist end is a dark blue triangular field representing the state's hills and valleys. It contains a red disk surrounded by a white ring, representing the letter O (guess what that stands for), the red and white together suggesting the buckeye that gives the state its nickname; arranged around that are 17 stars, arranged to suggest the 13 original states to one side of the disk, plus four more toward the point of the triangle; significantly, Ohio was the 17th state added to the union. It also takes 17 steps to fold the Ohio burgee correctly. How do you like that?

Rhode Island's flag is a little more squarish than most; its height/width ratio is 29:33. This might be appropriate considering what a small state it is. Again, I like its directness and simplicity. It's mostly gold on a white field: a gold fringe around the edges, except at the hoist; a circle formed by 13 large gold stars representing the original 13 states of the union, which R.I. was the 13th to join; a gold anchor at the center, a biblical symbol of hope, and the state's motto "Hope" in gold letters on a blue ribbon below it. The anchor also works on another level, since Rhode Island is a maritime state.

South Carolina's flag is not only hauntingly simple and beautiful - a white crescent and palmetto tree on an indigo field - but it also harks back to heroic military actions during the U.S. Revolutionary War. The symbol of the crescent, inspired by an emblem on some of the troops' caps, decorated a hastily produced battle ensign during the defense of Americans strongholds in coastal South Carolina in 1775. A version with just the crescent, then inscribed with the word "Liberty," flew over a sand fort, reinforced with the trunks of palmetto trees, that withstood a 16-hour bombardment by the British on June 28, 1776. The palmetto then had to be added to the flag of what is now known as the Palmetto State.

Tennessee has this neat flag, which mixes design elements that carry symbolic meaning - such as three white stars, representing the western, middle, and eastern "grand divisions" of the state, unified by the blue circle around them - and ones that exist purely for aesthetic reasons - such as the blue bar along the fly, which was added purely to break up the crimson field that fills most of the flag. The narrow white bands separating the blue and crimson elements seem to exist simply to sharpen the image in the viewer's eye. The precise arrangement of the three stars is spelled out in Tennessee law, apparently to avoid any suggestion of one section of the state having priority over another. It's an unusually long flag, by the way, with a height-to-width ratio of 3:5; compare that, for example, to the 2:3 ratio of the flag below.

Not for nothing is Texas called the Lone Star State. Here is its flag, sort of like the U.S. flag boiled down to its essentials. And of course, that one very big star represents one very big state. The North American Vexillological Association (vexillology is the study of flags, you know) rated this the second-best design out of the 72 flags of every U.S. state and territory and Canadian province. Its colors are the exact shades of dark red, white, and royal blue depicted on the American flag: blue for loyalty, white for purity, red for bravery. The lone star symbolizes solidarity and independence. The wide white and red stripes, one each, may have originally represented the alliance between white settlers and Native Americans in their struggle for independence from Mexico. The Texas flag also has its own pledge: "Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible."

Coming in Part 2: U.S. State Flags that Mostly Rule.