Set on the high ground at the heart of Cape Ann, the village of Dogtown is peopled by widows, orphans, spinsters, scoundrels, whores, free Africans, and "witches." Among the inhabitants of this hamlet are Black Ruth, who dresses as a man and works as a stonemason; Mrs. Stanley, an imperious madam whose grandson, Sammy, comes of age in her brothel; Oliver Younger, who survives a miserable childhood at the hands of his aunt; and Cornelius Finson, a freed slave. At the center of it all is Judy Rhines, a fiercely independent soul, deeply lonely, who nonetheless builds a life for herself against all imaginable odds.
Rendered in stunning, haunting detail, with Diamant's keen ear for language and profound compassion for her characters, The Last Days of Dogtown is an extraordinary retelling of a long-forgotten chapter of early American life.
Fans of Diamant's The Red Tent who were disappointed by her sophomore effort (Good Harbor) will be happy to find her back on historical turf in her latest, set in early 1800s Massachusetts. Inspired by the settlement of Dogtown, Diamant reimagines the community of castoffs--widows, prostitutes, orphans, African-Americans and ne'er-do-wells--all eking out a harsh living in the barren terrain of Cape Ann. Black Ruth, the African woman who dresses like a man and works as a stonemason; Mrs. Stanley, who runs the local brothel, and Judy Rhines, an unmarried white woman whose lover Cornelius is a freed slave, are among Dogtown's inhabitants who are considered suspect--even witches--by outsiders. Shifting perspectives among the various residents (including the settlement's dogs, who provide comfort to the lonely), Diamant brings the period alive with domestic details and movingly evokes the surprising bonds the outcasts form in their dying days. This chronicle of a dwindling community strikes a consistently melancholy tone--readers in search of happy endings won't find any here--but Diamant renders these forgotten lives with imagination and sensitivity. (Sept.) Copyright (c) 1997-2005 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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July 01, 2006
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Excerpt from The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant
Chapter One: The Death of Abraham Wharf
Judy Rhines decided to take the footpath through the pasture. It was half the distance of walking all the way down the Commons Road and back up Dogtown Road and she wanted to get there early enough to be of help. But the going was slow. The winter of 1814 had buckled the field with frost and there was black ice in every hollow. If she didn't consider every step, she might end up as bad off as Abraham Wharf, who certainly had no need of her hurry.
The cold seemed to add hours and miles to even the shortest journey through Dogtown. Gloucester, which was barely an hour's walk for a healthy man in good weather, could seem as remote as Salem in February. It was a gloomy landscape even on a fine day, with its rutted thoroughfares and ruined houses and the odd collection of souls who had washed up into the rocky hills of Cape Ann. At least it isn't windy, Judy consoled herself.
She was the first to arrive at Easter Carter's house. "My right-hand friend," said Easter, holding out a shawl for her. "Come by the fire."
Judy smiled at the tiny woman, hung up her cold-stiffened cloak, and took shelter in the warm wrap. After the feeling had returned to her fingertips and cheeks, she squared her shoulders and went over to take a look at the body of Abraham Wharf, which lay on the floor in the far corner of the room.
Judy lifted the faded scrap of yellow gingham that covered his face and chest. It was a shame and a sorrow. Nobody spoke of suicide much, but Judy wondered if it might be a far more common escape than anyone suspected. Then it occurred to her that there was a curious lack of blood on Wharf: if a man cuts his own throat, shouldn't his collar be soaked through? Shouldn't his hands be stained, his sleeves caked? Perhaps the cold had frozen it, she reasoned. Or maybe Easter had cleaned him up.
Before she could ask any questions, the door opened and Ruth walked in, her arms full of firewood. Judy marveled at the sight of eight real logs: the nearby hills had been stripped of trees years ago. Dogtowners burned mostly peat and dung.
Then again, she thought, Ruth brought mystery wherever she went. A stranger would be hard-pressed to see that the coffeecolored African wearing trousers and a cap was a "she" at all. Ruth had never been seen in a dress and preferred the name "John Woodman," though everyone knew her as Black Ruth. A stonemason, of all things, she lodged in Easter's attic. Judy still hoped that Easter would one day tell her more of Ruth's story. She was fascinated by everything having to do with Cape Ann's few Africans.
"Hello, Ruth," said Judy. "What a great treat you bring us." Ruth nodded, placed the logs by the fire, and retreated upstairs before the others started to trickle in.
Easter Carter's was the biggest house fit for habitation in the Commons Settlement, which was Dogtown's real name. With an eight-foot ceiling and a twenty-foot-long parlor, its fireplace was large enough for a side of beef, though it had been many years since anything so rich had sizzled there. The place was large only by comparison with everything else still standing for miles around, and it served as a tavern in everything but name and taxes. Young people and sailors tramped up the old road seeking a good time, and Easter let them have it. She loved having company, and even a corpse was welcome if it fetched in a crop of the living.
That day, the first visitors included a few ancient ladies who arrived, one by one, braving the cold to pay their respects to the deceased and hoping for a glass of ale in his honor, and perhaps even a bite to eat.