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Book Review: Recently released Minnesota books

Fri, Mar 16th, 2001
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Last month I attended the annual convention of the Upper Midwest Bookseller Association in downtown St. Paul, a gathering of authors, publishers and independent booksellers.

I was impressed, as I was last year, by the number of fine books of regional interest being published and I made promises to more than a couple authors and their publishers that I would review their books in the Journal. So here goes:

Painting the Dakota, Seth Eastman at Fort Snelling, by Marybeth Lorbiecki, Afton Historical Society Press.

A West Point graduate, Seth Eastman was a 19th century career army officer, who also happened to be an accomplished painter. In 1830 Eastman was stationed at Fort Snelling, which at the time, was the westernmost outpost in the country. Eastman started sketching the surrounding countryside paying particular attention to the customs and activities of the Dakota and the Ojibwe Indians of the area.

Eastman left Minnesota two years later for other assignments but returned to Fort Snelling in 1841 as Post Commander. By then he also had a reputation as one of America’s best landscape artists.

In Painting the Dakota, Marybeth Lorbiecki tells the engaging story of how Eastman juggled the two unlikely career pursuits of soldiering and painting. Her stories of the daily rhythms of the Dakota - their celebrations and games, their hunting and fishing practices and more - compliment the vivid images of Eastman’s watercolors.

These paintings along with Lorbiecki’s narrative are a powerful testament to an extinct way of life and a part of Minnesota’s history, that sadly, we know too little about.

Minnesota in the Civil War, An Illustrated History, by Kenneth Carley, Minnesota State Historical Press.

On July 2, 1863, a regiment of soldiers from the First Minnesota made a charge against Confederate lines at the Battle of Gettysburg. Author Kenneth Carley describes the men as, "way-worn and foot sore. . . weather-beaten, soil-stained, dirty and ragged from weeks of tramping and camping in heat and in dust, in rain and in mud . . ." Of the 262 Minnesotans who charged on that hot July day, only 47 of them came through unscathed. All told, the First Minnesota casualties amounted to 82 percent of their number killed or wounded.

"(We) got the worst cutting up we ever had - but not as is usually the case - without any satisfaction. To tell you the truth we did whip the Rebs handsomely," Edward Walker, a Minnesota soldier, wrote to a friend after the battle.

Minnesotans fought in every theatre of the war and in most of its famous battles, from Bull Run to Antietam to the siege of Vicksburg and Sherman’s march to the sea. This well-illustrated volume of Minnesota’s participation in the war brings together an impressive collection of rarely-seen photographs, diary entries, letters and first-hand accounts. The men of this human drama, America’s greatest and most tragic bloodletting, speak of their sacrifices and their losses, their fears and their compassion. One hundred forty years later, their words still resonate with heartfelt power and emotion in this monumental book.

The book closes with the words of Albert Woodson, of Duluth, who was the very last Union Civil War veteran to die in 1956, at the age of 109. Woodson is quoted as saying, "We were fighting our brothers. In that there was no glory."

The Night the Fitz Went Down, by Hugh E. Bishop, Lake Superior Port Cities, Inc.

It was a stormy night on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, when the 729 foot-freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald, hauling a load of iron ore, went down taking with her a crew of 29 men. Ever since legends and theories have abounded as to what happened on that fateful night. Did she go down because of a stress fracture to the hull or was she overloaded? Did leaking hatchways allow water from the heavy waves into her cargo area? Another theory refers to a Lake Superior phenomenon known as the "Three Sisters", a series of monster waves that can hit a ship and disable her with a deadly combination force.

In this richly detailed book, author Hugh Bishop revisits the awesome November storm through the eyes of Captain Dudley Paquette, who was navigating another freighter on the lake that night. Paquette was a seasoned shipmaster and veteran of many Lake Superior storms and his observations and theories of what went wrong the night the Fitz went down make for a compelling and extremely readable story.

Lost Minnesota, Stories of Vanished Places, by Jack El-Hai, University of Minnesota Press

As its title suggests, this book is a history of Minnesota places that no longer exist. From stately 19th century mansions to funky looking round barns to the old Metropolitan Stadium, author Jack El-Hai’s tour through Minnesota’s architectural past is a delight. The old adage that every picture (and building) tells a story is certainly evident in this fascinating and entertaining book.

Al Mathison

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