The stories I tell in We Are Yet Alive: United Methodists and Their Ancestors in the History of North Dakota and South Dakota are nonfiction because they adhere to the discipline of documents. I am willing to be evaluated on whether I have established facts by documenting them. I like footnotes. I cannot be concerned with what “might have been” or “must have been.” I accept that most of what happened in history and how people at a particular time felt about it are now lost to us. I also accept that, when we try to study the past, we are dealing with people and worlds of thought and feeling that were significantly different from our own.
The stories I tell are short because the Internet and hypertext are transforming readers and reading. I do not expect that books will disappear because, unlike electronic media, the meaning of books is conspicuous or, at least, their use of language is conspicuous. (Will anyone, a century from now, recognize a cassette tape as something that has a message or a song on it?) However, I appreciate that readers have limited amounts of time and could be spending it with somebody else’s texts or doing something besides reading.
The stories I tell are stories because stories make history accessible to most people. I believe that narrative of some kind—perhaps nonfiction short stories—can make the insights of professional historical scholars available to readers outside academia and engage them in historical thinking. In my stories, I use a combination of showing, telling, and saying less in order to say more. I want to get at the mystery of the individual human beings who were the location of meaning and experience. Several of the stories compare and contrast two individuals or groups of people who lived at the same time. But I also provide larger contexts for individual lives and raise (not resolve) a number of important theological and historical issues:
- conflict in the Church
- the accumulation of wealth during modern history
- slavery and depersonalization
- the limits of human action in history
- God’s nescience (ignorance) in history given the reality of human freedom and chance
- hunger and the production of daily bread
- the disintegration of small-scale organization in the modern world
- the persistence of revival in the modern world
- calling and vocation.