Book Review: Leverett author tackles an imperfect marriage

For The Recorder
Friday, May 05, 2017

“Under a Dark Eye” by Sharon Dunn (Texas Tech University Press, 208 pages, $24.95)

“I began this book wanting to find an answer to a single question: what made my father into the complex, unempathetic man I knew?”

So begins “Under a Dark Eye,” a moving, beautifully written memoir by Sharon Dunn of Leverett. Dunn describes a childhood in which her father Gilbert Dunn dominated and depressed his wife, his daughter, and above all, his son.

The family lived on the grounds of the New Hampshire State Mental Hospital in Concord, where Dunn’s mother, Gladys Ward-Dunn, worked as clinical director. Gilbert Dunn drove every day to work at his small business — a one-man enterprise in which he manufactured the country’s first windowsill bird feeders.

Much of the Dunns’ middle-class life was comfortable. The hospital provided them with housing and food. A hardworking maid took care of the house. They had little social life, however, and the children received scant affection from their distant, often angry father.

Years after her parents’ death, their daughter started going through the personal materials they left — primarily photographs and letters — in an effort to learn how Gil and Gladys started out, individually and as a couple, and how they ended up so unhappy together.

Her book comprises two main sections, her father’s story and her mother’s. In addition to the materials at hand, Sharon Dunn uses general history, family remembrances and her intuition and imagination to trace the patterns of her parents’ lives.

Early photographs of her father show a smiling, social, athletic young man with hopes and dreams for the future. Dunn suggests ways in which a series of personal and societal mishaps — an illness, the Great Depression, a car accident, WWII — may have turned that young man into the grim loner of her youth.

Her mother’s life seems to have been happier. Gladys Ward-Dunn loved her work. She treasured and nurtured her children. Nevertheless, she appears to have suffered from insecurities that led her to cede control over the home to her domineering husband.

Sharon Dunn tells their stories with compassion for everyone in the family. Her reconstruction of her parents’ lives is insightful. She augments it with poems in which she imagines their experiences or recalls her own.

Those poems, and the photographs that illustrate the book, help make the Dunns very real to the reader. An excellent example of the latter is a black-and-white image of Gladys Ward-Dunn’s collection of earrings.

Along with her daughter’s loving words, these earrings paint a picture of a woman who did the best she could to embellish an imperfect life.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” and “Pulling Taffy.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.