Too often it's only after a loved one dies that the next generation discovers the secrets they kept when they were alive. Amy L. Johnson, a graphic designer from Grand Rapids, learned about her grandfather’s closest relationship only after he was gone. What she found were boxes of letters, some hand written in beautiful cursive, others done on a typewriter. They became Letters Lost Then Found: A Conversation Between Two Brothers, 1942 - 1945 (Splattered Ink Press, 2016).
“Freddy was 19 years old when he left Saginaw, Michigan, to go off to war,” Johnson says. “He spent a lot of time at different air bases getting pilot training before he finally ventured off to the China- Burma-India Theater. My grandfather, Willy, was 30. He couldn’t go to war because their father was deceased, and another brother was in the European Theater. It was kind of an unwritten rule back then that the eldest son had to stay in the home front.”
Willy, or William, worked as an editor at the Saginaw News and he handled all the household accounting for his brothers, including Freddy, as well as their mother. Many of the letters between the two brothers, at first, concerned financial matters. But other stories soon emerged, including the girl Freddy wished he'd kissed before leaving.
Rather than transcribing the letters, Johnson used her graphic design skills to scan and arrange them in the eye-catching pages of Letters Lost Then Found. She also added other mementos along the margins, including photographs, news clippings, war timelines, and a ticker tape running along the bottom of the pages.
The book has won several awards, including Best Overall Design in Nonfiction in the International Book Awards for 2017. It also was a finalist in the Historical Nonfiction category. And it was a finalist in the War & Military category for the Indie Awards in 2016. The book has also won several awards for its design.
Johnson says scanning the letters was a challenge, "Because the letterhead from every air base was a different size, so to find a scale so that the handwriting was consistent throughout (was difficult). But that level of literacy, beautiful handwriting, punctuation, and grammar, written with a fountain pen by a 19-year-old was quite impressive.”
Johnson says she was surprised when younger people told her they had trouble reading cursive writing rather than print. But she's found the effort worthwhile to preserve her family's history, and something of American military history.
Freddy’s story ended tragically. But even if the reader can guess the outcome, the same outcome as for many others, the conversation between Freddy and his older brother becomes personal to the reader, who's pulled in by the daily details of life.
Johnson teaches at Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids.
Listen to WMUK's Between the Lines every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m.