Updated: Jul 23, 2021
One of my first projects with NextGen Story was about a would-be uncle. My client’s uncle had died in World War II at the age of 18, leaving a heartbreaking gap in the lives of his parents and only sister. I had the joy of getting to know this young man as I created a beautiful custom book about his short life.
The client’s mother had grown up in England with one brother, whom the family called Bunty. She and her elder brother were just over two years apart and very close. Bunty joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to Canada for training. He was killed at the age of 18 near the end of WWII. The client’s mother had rarely spoken about Bunty - the loss was too great.
And so my client was left with a box of photographs, letters, books, and other documents all relating to Bunty, the uncle he had never met. The first photographs he shared were of Bunty’s funeral service: full parade through town, formal service, and horn parade. A heartbreaking display of honour and pride for a boy lost far, far too young.
Over the next months, I had the opportunity to uncover many aspects of Bunty’s life. One aspect of this project involved sitting with Bunty’s personal effects: photographs, letters, and a carefully organized photo album he had created. The content is personal to Bunty and to his family: suffice it to say that I truly felt I came to know and appreciate Bunty as the lively, humorous, relational person he was.
The second part of my work was situating Bunty’s personal life story in family, community, and historical context. Here’s a few of the many discoveries we made along the way;
• Photos of his home - Working with the official city archives for the city where Bunty’s family lived, I was able to locate and then purchase images of Bunty’s childhood home from the era when he would have lived there.
• Unknown birthplaces - Bunty’s family came from several countries, but the family had likely changed their name and records were limited. Working with the clues available, I did genealogy research to uncover his family origins, tracing back several generations. On one side of the family, we ran into a birthplace that is no longer named as a town: and after significant research, were able to identify not only the location of the place, but some of its relevant historical context.
• School evacuation - through a broader search around Bunty’s school, I kept uncovering postcards from Bunty to his family from a beachside location in Cornwall. Finally, by researching the overall history of the school itself, I unearthed the history of the entire school’s evacuation and relocation to the countryside during WWII.
• A plaque in his name - Bunty’s religious community was mentioned several times in his records. I researched the history of the community, made phone calls, and was able to discover not only a plaque that directly named Bunty as a fallen WWII soldier, but also found kind local residents who were able to send high-resolution images of those plaques.
• One last photo - We knew that Bunty had attended military training in Canada at least once, from his own photos and writing. During the process of research we discovered he had attended a second training camp. Thanks to the help of academics, military museums, and incredibly dedicated amateur archivist/historians (see more in this post!), we were able to uncover details of Bunty’s military training, including a crew photograph that is the last known image of Bunty.
The experience of researching Bunty’s life allowed me to honour Bunty’s story, learn more than I ever imagined, and create a beautiful book that will last for generations to come.
As the client put it: ”In the process of putting this book together, I have reached a sense of resolution and found unexpected echoes of his life in my own… I am reminded of Kirkegaard’s words: Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Thanks to the thoughtfulness of a nephew he never met, Bunty’s story is now being read by great-grandnieces and nephews around the world. What better honour could there be for any aunt or uncle.
If you’re ready to create a book to uncover the hidden history of a relative in your family, send me an email and let’s talk.
image above: front cover of Bunty's book Image below: a page spread from Bunty's book with photograph, portions of a letter, and transcribed letter text