On writing history

Norwegian-American Historical Association looks at creative ways of conveying history

Norwegian-American Historical Association

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Dr. Amy E. Weldon, keynote speaker at NAHA’s biennial meeting, gave a presentation about using images in historical writing.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American

On Saturday, Oct. 13, the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) held its Biennial Meeting and Seminar on Writing History and Memoirs at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

Dr. Amy E. Weldon, associate professor of English at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, and author of The Writer’s Eye, gave the keynote presentation, “Ancestors are People Too: Writing History in Images.” It was a fascinating glimpse into creative non-fiction, relating how the writer is shaped by their own context, and how events can reshape history. The word “image” usually refers to photography, but Weldon interprets it to be a picture laid down in the writer’s memory from childhood. Images stored in one’s brain yield stories, explained Weldon, and they give writing a personal flavor, as well as its ultimate power.

Also speaking was the Honorable John R. Tunheim, past NAHA president and author of A Scandinavian Saga: Pioneering in New Folden Township, Marshall County, Minnesota, 1882-1903. His presentation, “Writing Local History,” will encourage anyone interested to begin researching and writing. Recounting in detail how he went about a book project (published in 1984) that took some 10 years to complete, Tunheim explained that he tried to convey a sense of how people lived. How did they preserve food? What did people wear? How did they overcome sickness and tragedy? Written records are important. He researched the census records and obituaries, the township organization, tax rolls, and church documents. He studied the role of the railroad that could easily doom one town and give birth to another. Photos, maps, and personal interviews—all are part of the template that places the writer’s personal story in context.

Former NAHA editor, author of 20 books in both Norwegian and English, and professor emeritus at St. Olaf College, Dr. Odd Lovoll presented the afternoon session. His memoir, Two Homelands: A Historian Considers His Life and Work, recently co-published by NAHA and the Minnesota Historical Society Press, reflects Lovoll’s strong ties to his native land of Norway and to his new homeland, America. Considered the greatest authority on Norwegian immigration to America, he writes of his family and his interest in and contributions to scholarly historical topics associated with the Norwegian-American experience. It’s a story told with wit and honesty.

For those interested in learning more about the Norwegian-American Historical Association, which is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and interpreting the Norwegian-American experience, the organization’s biennial meetings are open to the public. Visit naha.stolaf.edu or call (507) 786-3221.

This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.