Carrie Dunsmore, attorney and writer of Queen of Booklandia blog, dies at 40
Carrie Dunsmore read so much — more than 200 books some years — that poring over page after page could have been a full-time job, enough to richly fill any life. Except that for her, it was just the start.
She also was a lawyer the past 15 years and a mother the past nine. Then five years ago, just after giving birth to her third child, she was diagnosed with cancer that metastasized.
It was as if that appetite for reading was inseparable from her hunger for life. “She just loved being alive,” said her husband, Jon Flynn.
On Aug. 15, Ms. Dunsmore died of complications from colon cancer while staying at her parents’ summer home in Phippsburg, Maine. She was 40 and had moved to Newton with her husband and children a few years ago, after spending more than a decade in Washington, D.C., working much of that time as a trial attorney for the Justice Department.
Raising three children, writing thousands upon thousands of words for a blog, working as a lawyer, and staying strong for friends and family during treatment for cancer might seem like more than anyone could handle. Not Ms. Dunsmore, who kept a separate blog to record the many trips she and her family took to national parks.
“Oh my God, the Grand Canyon. When I first saw it, I cried. I actually drew tears,” she wrote in 2016. “You think you know about the Grand Canyon from movies or TV, and then you actually see it and your heart swells. I don’t know, it made me feel proud to be an American.”
Even now, her husband said, “I don’t know how much of this was racing to see how much she could do before things got bad. I like to think this is just who she was.”
Indeed, the title of her books blog offered a hint that Ms. Dunsmore had kept that pace since childhood. As a third-grader, she outdistanced older children, reading about 100 books in the school year to claim the Queen of Booklandia honor, a tale she recounted on her blog with characteristic effusiveness (“Pretty awesome, right?”).
And yet, from when she was a girl to her final weeks, Ms. Dunsmore always made time to be an unusually attentive friend to women she had known throughout her life.
With a cancer diagnosis, “it’s very easy to just focus on yourself, when you have that ticking clock,” said Michelle Glassman Bock, a Harvard Law School classmate who now is with the firm WilmerHale. “She did hear the ticking of the clock and felt, ‘There may not be another day, another year. I’m going to show my family and my friends love, because I can show them now.’ ”
The oldest of three children, Carrie Anna Dunsmore grew up in Boxford. Her father, Douglas Dunsmore, does marketing and sales for a tire repair business. Her mother, the former Mary Ellen Niconchuk, formerly was a reading teacher.
“I think of her as the superstar of the family,” said Ms. Dunsmore’s sister, Devon Gallice of Phippsburg.
“She literally did nothing wrong her whole life growing up. I don’t think she’s ever broken a rule,” Devon added with a laugh. “She was the best person I knew.”
Ms. Dunsmore graduated in 1996 from Masconomet Regional High School in Boxford and in 2000 from Dartmouth College, where she met Flynn, a lawyer who was a Dartmouth classmate.
She went to Harvard Law School, and they married in 2003, the year she graduated. After Ms. Dunsmore clerked for US District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton in Boston, the couple moved to Washington. Ms. Dunsmore worked for the Crowell & Moring law firm before joining the Justice Department, where she mostly focused on international trade cases.
“She was an extraordinary writer,” said Claudia Burke, an assistant director in the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “More than that, she was really unusually smart.”
Although the Justice Department has many lawyers with academic credentials like Ms. Dunsmore’s, Burke added, “she was just wickedly smart and extremely funny and very, very easy to talk to.”
As Ms. Dunsmore combined work and motherhood, she became friends with Nora Krug, then a neighbor, who is an editor and writer for the Washington Post’s Book World section.
“I thought, ‘My God, this woman is one of the most voracious readers I’ve met, and she’s funny and honest and disarming in her honesty,’ ” Krug said of Ms. Dunsmore, who freelanced book reviews and parenting columns to the Post. “She made you think and made you laugh, and was warm and funny. It’s corny to say, but I feel lucky to have known her.”
Krug added: “I thought she was a terrific writer. It’s basically like her personality in print.”
Ms. Dunsmore and her husband have three children — 9-year-old Nate, 7-year-old Peter, and 5-year-old Nora. During Ms. Dunsmore’s last pregnancy, a persistent infection led doctors to a stage IV colon cancer diagnosis, 11 weeks after Nora was born.
“In some ways, she actually became an even better friend after she got sick,” Bock recalled. “Once Carrie had a sense of what was going on, it’s like she decided she was going to squeeze out every drop of life.”
There were the trips to national parks to show her children the country, the move back to Massachusetts, the calls, and FaceTime conversations she scheduled with friends, and, of course, the books. Ms. Dunsmore read and wrote about nearly all of the Modern Library’s top 100 novels. Her blog’s subcategories include “The Agatha Christie Project” (she read every book Christie ever wrote).
Even breaking the news to her oldest child about Santa Claus became a reason to write and contemplate.
“Ever since I was diagnosed, our family policy has been to not lie to the kids,” she wrote in a Washington Post column in December. “We keep it age appropriate, we sometimes soften the truth a bit, and we have been oh so lucky that so far (knock on wood) we haven’t had to have the really, really hard conversation. But telling the truth to them — not just about my health but in general — has become our rule.”
In addition to her husband, children, parents, and sister, Ms. Dunsmore leaves her brother, David of Boxford, and her paternal grandfather, Gordon of Phippsburg, Maine.
A memorial Mass will be said at 2 p.m. Oct. 14 in St. Ignatius of Loyola Church on the Boston College campus.
“Her energy and enthusiasm for virtually everything was just limitless,” Jon said. “She knew what she liked, and what she liked she embraced with a joy and passion.”
And that passion seemed even more on display the past five years.
“If anything her cancer gave her the room and space for her incredible heart to grow and expand,” Bock wrote about Ms. Dunsmore for her own blog. “She became intensely, extraordinarily grateful for the smallest gifts she had been given — as well as the biggest gifts.