Review: Minnesota’s Capitol: A Centennial Story

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Most Minnesotans are familiar with the annual Princess Kay of the Milky Way butter sculptures created at the Minnesota State Fair. But how many know about the magnificent five-and-a-half foot tall butter sculpture of the Minnesota State Capitol building? Created in 1901 for the Pan-American Expo in New York, the sculpture was a huge hit that brought attention to Minnesota’s burgeoning agricultural trade. Besides that, a five-foot butter building is just really cool.

_Minnesota’s Capitol: A Centennial Story_, by first-time author Leigh Roethke, is a kind of art history of the Capitol, chockfull of anecdotes and pictures. The introduction by Roethke’s mentor Karal Ann Marling gets at what this kind of history can convey to readers: how the Capitol served to prove, especially in the early days of Minnesota’s statehood, that Minnesotans were “nobody’s country cousins.” Her hope that readers will take from this book a “feeling of affection for the ‘people’s house’” is well-founded.

The layout of the book is engaging without being too busy, and there’s a nice mixture of pictures; historical photos, paintings and even tourist tchotckes like postcards, pillows, and cigar boxes all help to make the history of the Capitol come alive. Roethke offers an interesting explanation of how seemingly inconsequential tourist souvenirs helped spread the word about Minnesota’s progress as a state. At the end of each chapter there is an “Excursus” (Latin for digression) that delves a little deeper into a side topic. These fun tangents include discussions of the quadriga (that gold chariot thingie at the base of the dome) and the Rathskeller, the German beer hall in the basement (now a café).

Roethke’s unique approach to the Capitol’s history is aimed at young readers, but she never talks down to them: Allegorical or not, there are too many naked bodies covering the walls of the Capitol to ignore, and Roethke’s straightforward explanation of the depiction of nudes in art is as refreshing as it as informative. In this age of truth and reconciliation commissions, she also does well to caution the reader to consider the source when viewing artistic interpretations of some historical events: “the scenes chosen for Minnesota’s Capitol do tell only one side of the story….the ones who got the land and those who fought the wars on the winning sides.” Roethke’s tendency to tie together the obscure and the well-known is sure to pique a young reader’s interest. Case in point: That guy who made the long-gone butter building? He also created the Lief Erikson statue that stands on the Capitol grounds (is it just me or does his helmet look like Mouseketeer ears?)

Karal Ann Marling is known for her fascinating pop culture tomes on everything from Graceland to Christmas, but her encyclopedic writing is probably too dense for most young readers. With Roethke’s accessible, engaging writing, we may have a new pop culture art historian—just for kids.

_Carrie Mercer is a freelance writer and artist living in Minneapolis. She has an MFA from Hamline University and is currently learning to ice skate. Read her blog at “www.findingjimmy.blogspot.com”:http://www.findingjimmy.blogspot.com or reach her by email at cmercer@mn.rr.com._

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