I recently read two fascinating books which delve into the mysterious history of the Cape Ann settlement of Dogtown, now a part of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The books are Dogtown: death and enchantment in a New England ghost town by Elyssa East and The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant. Anita Diamant's fictional account of the decline of this impoverished settlement in the early 1800's uses historical characters in an imaginative and compelling way. Elyssa East approaches the history of the same forlorn region from a modern departure point - the shocking murder there of a local woman in 1984.
East's 2009 narrative nonfiction book combines an investigation of this murder with parallel storylines involving art history detection and local intrigue. The author initially intended to find the sources of inspiration for some of American artist Marsden Hartley's 1930's watercolors which featured the unusual topography of Dogtown, known for its boulders and strange rocky formations. Thinking she might be able to see the actual locations which Hartley painted, she travelled to Gloucester, bought a map of Dogtown, and promptly got lost in its disorienting woods. The area had long ago acquired a reputation for eerie happenings, a reputation which was further tarnished by the savage and pointless murder of a young woman in these very woods. Dogtown: death and enchantment in a New England ghost town will keep you engaged throughout, but it is regrettable that the author did not provide any prints of Hartley's Dogtown landscapes or any photos of the area.
Diamant's 2005 historical fiction book, The Last Days of Dogtown, fleshes together an interesting tale about the last survivors of the isolated and failing Dogtown Settlement at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Only fragmentary records and oral histories remain of Dogtown's demise and of the people who inhabited this remote area of Cape Ann. Many of Dogtown's inhabitants were shunned by Gloucester folk because they clung to old ways and refused to move into town. Some were suspected of practicing witchcraft and prostitution. Diamant expands the few historical vignettes about these people into a satisfying story of marginalized individuals living a desperate existence in a dying settlement. Some of these individuals are briefly mentioned in Elyssa East's book as well, but I was glad that Anita Diamant had given them fuller, though fictional lives. I do recommend both of these books.
Review by Evelyn Fischel