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‘Creating Minnesota’ reveals our state through the eyes of those who helped to build it

January 7, 2008

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

Some tomes of history can be as dry as burnt toast and as fast-moving as molasses in the month of January, but a new book published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press suffers from neither of these criticisms.

“Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out’ by Annette Atkins provides a very accessible window into the events that shaped our state.

Those who enjoy history will find it a treat, and those who have not read much about the history of Minnesota may find it surprisingly entertaining.

Rather than lumbering through a litany of names and dates, the book reveals the history of the region through stories of those who shaped its development.

The book offers insight into areas that are often overlooked.

We sometimes adopt a narrow, Eurocentric view and think of Minnesota history as beginning in the mid-to-late 1600s when French fur traders such as Groseilliers and Radisson were wandering around the western Lake Superior region.

Some may even think our history began in the years leading up to Minnesota being admitted as the 32nd state in the union, May 11, 1858.

Atkins is quick to remind us that people have been living in what is now Minnesota for thousands of years, as evidenced by the fact that the remains of Minnesota Woman and Brown’s Valley Man are estimated to be some 8,000 to 10,000 years old.

In the book, Atkins shows us how the earliest inhabitants of the region adapted their lifestyle to their environment, and she contrasts this with the lifestyle of some of the later arrivals.

Using a narrative style that highlights the experiences of real Minnesotans, rather than abstract generalizations, Atkins makes the events that shaped the state come alive.

The book provides a taste of how key industries, such as the fur trade, the lumber industry, milling, mining, and transportation affected the lives of Minnesotans.

Atkins writes not only about how these industries affected the region and the environment, but about what it was like for those who made a living in various occupations through the years.

The book also provides insight into the role of women in the workforce, and the challenges they have faced at various points in our history.

The book includes information about some of the political, medical and educational institutions that were important in shaping the future of the region.

The impact of wars, from the Dakota war to World War II, on the lives of everyday people, is also revealed.

Rather than relying on generalizations about rationing during the war, Atkins uses concrete examples, such as the comments of a mother who traded her sugar coupons for another family’s shoe coupons so she could get shoes for her growing children.

The book includes stories about the day-to-day lives of people, and about how advances in technology changed their lives. Readers who never experienced life without electricity will get a sense of what it meant to rural Minnesotans when the REA (Rural Electrification Authority) brought electricity to outstate areas.

Atkins shares stories that reveal what life was like when household chores included things such as hauling wood for the wood stove, filling and cleaning kerosene lamps, and elaborate systems for cleaning laundry that were far from automated.

Atkins also gives us a taste of what people did for entertainment in years past, and shows that, while life was not always easy, people found ways to have some fun through music, movies, dancing, and other forms of entertainment.

The book shows how the arts and various elements of popular culture have helped to define Minnesota and its people.

In addition to the text, the book includes tools that help convey the way the state has changed.

A section of vintage photographs illustrates what life was like years ago.

The book also includes a timeline showing important events from 1670 to 2007, which will help readers understand when these events occurred, relative to other events in our history.

The book is a fascinating and entertaining look at the people who were part of the rich fabric of Minnesota’s history.

Atkins has provided a fresh approach to an important subject, and ‘Creating Minnesota’ is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the state or its history. It is not the most comprehensive book on Minnesota history, but it is an entertaining treatment of a rich and complex subject.

Want to read more?

“Creating Minnesota: A History From the Inside Out” (Minnesota Historical Society Press; Oct. 1, 2007) is a must-read for anyone with an interest in Minnesota or its history.

It is available in bookstores and online. The list price is $27.95, but is available at Amazon.com for $18.45.

The author, Annette Atkins, is a professor of history at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.

She has also written two other books about Minnesota history, as well as articles, reviews, and columns in other publications.