Ernie Gunderson’s book tells the story of how his Mora-native mother, after the death of two children, went from ‘Hartland to Capitol Hill’
By Elizabeth Sias
In her lifetime, Ernie Gunderson’s mother suffered the loss of two schizophrenic children who committed suicide.
She managed to heal — and help others through the process — by getting involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and starting a chapter in Mora.
Gunderson, inspired by his mother’s tale of strength and compassion, quit his 24-year job as an engineer to write a memoir on his mother Mary, who passed away in 2000.
On Saturday, March 3, Gunderson will present the recently published book, “Hartland to Capitol Hill: The Journey of a Wounded Healer,” at a book signing event at Scout & Morgan Books at 11 a.m.
“She had these tragedies, but she would always claw her way out and make something of it,” he said. “She was a very positive person who made an impact on other peoples’ lives, and that was what really inspired me. I thought, ‘This is a story that needs to get out there.’”
The book is based on a memoir Mary wrote but never published. For that reason, Gunderson decided to write it from her perspective.
The daughter of Danish immigrants, Mary tells the heartrending tale of settling in rural Minnesota just before the Great Depression. Hartland is the small town where Mary’s earliest memories began. She describes her checkered career as a country school teacher in the 1940s. She goes on to marry a farmer and raises eleven children, two of whom succumb to mental illness and suicide.
Mary’s recovery from this family tragedy began when she founded a chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) in Mora, becoming a personal and political advocate for others suffering from mental illness. Her NAMI work led to Washington, DC, where she was invited to tell her story to congressional delegates on Capitol Hill.
In addition to her duties as a farm wife and a mother, Mary was a prolific writer. She recorded her entire life in diaries, letters, journals, and the unpublished memoir. After two life-changing trips to Denmark, Mary wrote and self-published The History of a Danish Family, the history of her family back to 1800.
Ernie, the third of Mary’s eleven children, quit his 24-year engineering career the same year Mary passed away. In 2005 he entered graduate school to begin a new career in clinical social work.
In the process of researching and writing papers, he discovered his love for writing and became fascinated with the large collection of Mary’s written work. A recent tour of his mother’s childhood home inspired Ernie to resurrect and publish Mary’s story.
“I think she would be really proud,” Gunderson said. “There’s a lot of messy family interactions and detail in there around mental illness in our family, but the story is so good that I decided it was well worth making it public.”
As part of his research for the biography, Gunderson used copies of 800 letters Mary had written. He also informed his family that he was writing her story, and he ended up with 6,200 pages of documents. He read and catalogued the entire collection to write the book, pulling in material from her 200-page memoir to fill in the gaps.
“The whole process was very fun and interesting,” Gunderson said. “It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life to write a book, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process — the creative writing, researching what she wrote and then rewording it in a way that would make it an interesting story. The craftsmanship of writing was so much fun for me.”
At the same time, he added, this was his first time writing a book, and it had its challenges. After the first draft was edited, he sent it to 10 people and received feedback. He decided to rewrite it.
He used her trip to Washington, D.C., to frame the rest of the story, with mental illness at the heart of the book. His sister, the oldest in the family, was 21 when she committed suicided in 1973. His brother committed suicide in 1986 at age 29.
“The suicides were a horrible ending and really devastated both my parents,” Gunderson said. “She climbed out of it by going on the road with her message.”
Mary very quickly went out to grief groups and helped facilitate groups before starting a NAMI chapter in Mora.
“It was through that process of doing something about it, getting involved — she didn’t want other families to suffer the way we had,” he added. “It was in the process of helping other people that she really healed herself.”
Gunderson has no dreams of the book becoming a best-seller — he just wants to get his mother’s story out there. During his first book signing at Walker Community Church in Minneapolis, he sold 70 copies and said the feedback has been positive.
“The beauty of the story is you can live through this terrible thing, but if you do something about it, you can get through it,” Gunderson said. “That’s the main thing in the story — she was devastated by the two deaths in her family, but she turned that into something positive. She became a very strong person and she grew a lot, and that comes out clearly in the book.”
In addition to Ernie sharing his insights and reading excerpts from the book, his sister Eunice Collette will sing songs inspired by Mary, who also was a musician. Scout & Morgan Books is located in Cambridge at 114 Buchanan St. North.
Ernie Gunderson and his sister and will also present the book at Calvary Lutheran Church in Rush Point on March 11.