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Dave Wood's Book Report, Oct. 21, 2009

In his inaugural address, President Obama said: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man .... Those ideals still light the word, and we will not give them up for expedience' sake.

That's how Louis Begley opens his new book, "Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters" (Yale University Press, $24).

Begley is a retired lawyer and author of several accomplished novels of manners, including "About Schmidt" and "Matters of Honor." Now he has turned to non-fiction and his citation of President Obama's speech has relevance today after the torturing of prisoners at Guantanamo.

The Dreyfus Affair has similarities to the Guantanamo situation because Dreyfus, a Jew, was falsely imprisoned on Devil's Island by the French Government in the 19th century for selling military secrets to Germany. He was eventually exonerated and received the Legion of Honour, much to the embarrassment of France, then the cultural citadel of the world.

Authors before Begley have dealt with Dreyfus, most notably Emile Zola in "J'accuse," but the attorney serves us well in reminding us how justice can be trampled on, especially if a minority is being persecuted.

North Woods River: The St. Croix River in Upper Midwest History (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95), by Eileen McMahon and Theodore Karamanski came out yesterday and folks interested in local history in the upper Midwest should be beating a path to their nearest bookstore.

McMahaon and Karamanski begin with the Dakota Indians, the first recorded human inhabitants. Then came fur trading, then logging, whose practitioners called it the "river of pine."

Then came men like New Yorker Caleb Cushing, who bought huge tracts of land and enticed European settlers to come to the new world, despite the cold weather. The newcomers set up small farms, many of which are disappearing as urban developments claim the land and the St. Croix Valley becomes a bedroom community and a haven for tourists who cram the streets of towns like Stillwater throughout the year.

McMahon and Karamanski point out that many years ago, the great muckraking writer Ray Stannard Baker wrote about the St. Croix Valley (where he grew up) he described as "The Burden of the Valley of Vision," bemoaning its urbanization even in 1907.

Baker thought a valley of vision should claim the best of both urban and rural settings. With the naming of the St. Croix a scenic river, Baker's dream, say the authors, has come true.

This book is beautifully documented, full of details from both past and present, thanks not only to the Wisconsin and Minnesota Historical Societies, but to county societies which have kept the past alive.

"Gophers Illustrated," by Al Papas Jr. (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95) is yet another sports book for your coffee table. No photos in this one, only workmanlike recreations of famous players by Al Papas Jr. whose father was a Gopher footballer.

Papas has done a good job of digging. As an old friend of Pug Lund, I jumped into the book and found all manner of data about my old friend. I knew Pug was a walk-on from Rice Lake, but I didn't know that he ran 233 yards and passed for 40 against Mississippi in 1932 or that in 1933 he gained more yards than all of his opposing team backfields. And he never told me that "Bernie Bierman called him the best player he ever coached."

The book isn't lacking in nostalgia either, as Pappas writes about the days when the University played small college teams like Carleton and Grinnell and Carlisle.

Books about churches keep appearing. Last month I wrote about Greg Pulles and his giant book about the basilicas of Rome. This month I received "Legacies of Faith: The Catholic Churches of Stearns County (North Star Press of St. Cloud, $19.95 paper), by John Roscoe and Robert Roscoe, color photographs by Dough Ohman.

It's a beautifully put-together book printed in color and on glossy paper. And it should sell like hotcakes. Did you know that no county in Minnesota or even the United States, compares in density of Catholic hamlets to Stearns County? That with a population two-thirds Catholic, this county contains 50 Catholic churches?

I didn't either.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.