As Minnesota's sesquicentennial year approaches, it brings with it a wrenching bout of self-examination, as readers of this newspaper's opinion pages already know. Who are we? What have we done? Where are we going? To this conversation the Minnesota Historical Society Press adds "Creating Minnesota" (320 pages, $27.95), a thought-provoking work of local history by Annette Atkins.

Atkins, a professor of history at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict in central Minnesota, isn't trying to outdo any of the more conventional histories of Minnesota already on library shelves. Instead, she aims to supplement them by telling smaller stories and using them as a metaphor for the larger whole.

The approach can be moving and fascinating, as in the painful story of the mixed-blood Campbell family, forced to choose sides during and after the Dakota War of 1862. The fabric of some other stories, such as that of Red Wing seamstress Mary Gillett, is thinner, and Atkins is forced to resort to hypotheticals: "In 1883, Mary and some of her friends might well have traveled by train to St. Paul to the grand opening of the Northern Pacific line ..." And a conventional retelling of the waxing and waning of the DFL Party seems a bit of a misfit.

"Creating Minnesota" is largely a social history, and issues of race and gender are never far from the surface. The story of the 1920s is shown effectively through photos. In one, two football players at Carleton College pose in full pads -- both women. Another shows the dining car crew on the Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited: manager and cooks, white; the rest of the staff, black.

Atkins also offers up some social commentary, such as this on America's big-engine automotive fetish of the 1950s: "Why this emphasis on power? People who are powerful don't need to buy power. People who don't have it (or feel they don't or wish they did) are the ones in the market for it, not intentionally and not consciously, no doubt, but susceptible to its charms and allure." (What kind of car Atkins drives is never revealed.)

Passages like this could give some conservative readers the feeling that they're a bit behind enemy lines here -- at least those who weren't warned off by the front-cover jacket blurb from Walter Mondale. But, ultimately, the unflinching way in which Atkins confronts the issues that shaped our history -- for 150 years and beyond -- makes for an eye-opening book.

Casey Common is a copy editor for the Star Tribune's Business section.