Comments by Bob Corbett
I found this novel fascinating on several levels. First of all I read it ONLY because of its title. I live in a neighborhood called Dogtown in St. Louis, Missouri, and have done a great deal of local history. I’m interested in this “Dogtown” name which has been held by quite a few neighborhoods throughout the U.S. over the years.
Secondly, when I opened the book there was a note from the author indicating we readers should pay attention to the subtitle: “a novel.” It is created mainly from whole cloth, but not quite. Diamant tells us she was influenced by the 1906 booklet In the heart of Cape Ann, the story of Dogtown by Charles E. Mann. That booklet, only 77 pages long influenced a much later pamphlet by Tom Dresser called: A Village Lost in Time. This work is about half the size of the Mann booklet.
Diamant herself tells us that Mann collected the great stories of Dogtown’s past from old folks who remembered or had heard them and was not as much interested in their truth as their value as folklore.
On the basis of these two works mainly, she decided to create a fictional account of this area which had disappeared from history by the middle of the 19th century. The novel is an exceptional achievement and the characters, and there are many of them, are vibrant, living and believable as humans struggling to eek out a living in a very harsh world.
I was already enthralled. In my own work on the history of “my” Dogtown, there is always a tension between the folk stories, which are so fascinating and the basis of many great leads to historical documentation, and the more hard-lined documented history itself. I love both, but, obviously trust more the stories that are backed by some serious documentation. Many of the folktales are second hand at best, and when I have been able to gather more than one version there are often significant differences. Even in cases when I have collected the same story from multiple actual participants, there are important differences in the various accounts. History often seems a difficult dialectic between those two sources -- folktales and personal reports on the one hand and documented data on the other. This difficulty is further complicated by the fact that much of the documented evidence is relatively UNINTERESTING if not enriched by the personal nature of the folktales and remembrances.
Diamant’s novel begins in about 1814. In the heart of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, up a rough muddy road from Gloucester, the high point is the called Dogtown. Not quite a village, but an area with its own identify. Life here is harsh, the people eccentric, desperately poor, uneducated, steeped in beliefs of witchcraft, revenge and fate.
Dogtown is dying. It is slowly being depopulated and new folks are not moving in. Anita Diamant’s fictional reconstruction has people leaving Dogtown one by one until no one is left and even only 3 or 4 of the several dozen dogs that once lived there are still around.
The people left Dogtown because
Given this guide for the novel, Diamant follows a sort of “one-by-one they go away” structure.
The novel begins with the suicide of an old man, Abraham Wharf, claimed to be the most important resident. We later learn he wasn’t what he appeared to be. But Dogtown’s numbers are beginning to dwindle and virtually no one is moving in nor being born into Dogtown. A lost citizen is a step along the way to Dogtown’s demise.
There are utterly fascinating characters in the novel and among the most memorable are Judy Rhines, a woman who was relatively new to the area when old man Wharf died. Judy was deeply influenced toward a life of radical independence for the age, when she met the older resident Easter Carter, a very independent woman who ran a sort of unofficial pub.
Judy learns independence from Easter and later has a life-long love affair with a former slave, Cornelius Finson. Much later in life, toward the end of the novel Judy tells Cornelius:
“Then the day I wandered into Dogtown and stopped at Easter Carter’s house, it was, well, like some revelation. There she was, living on her own … Tiny Easter Carter in that big house, all by herself. Bold as brass, and didn’t care who said what about her. I asked her wasn’t she afraid to sleep up there all alone. She said she liked being where no one else was breathing up the fresh air.”
“That planted the seed,” Judy said. “Knowing that Easter would be near helped me get up the gumption. So even if I never stopped being a scullery girl, and even if I was poor, I could be my own mistress in Dogtown. I suppose it was the same for you, too, wasn’t it, Cornelius, dear? You could be your own master there. As much as anywhere.”
In addition to Cornelius there was one other black person in Dogtown, Black Ruth, a woman who dressed as a man and claimed she was John Woodman. She was a master stonemason and built walls for people, but lived a life in near silence, the sole roomer at Easter Carter’s home.
Black Ruth was actually born in Dogtown, but no one there knew this. Her mother had been killed by the seemingly upstanding Abraham Wharf when she was pregnant with his child. However, he did take the child “north” and this child was Ruth.
Mimba, a black woman in the home where Wharf left her, adopted Ruth at age 4. She told Ruth the truth of her mother’s death and her place of birth. I think Mimba, in talking of Ruth’s life, captures the essence of the Cape Ann Dogtown
“You got a sad story Ruth,” Mimba said, “You here with me and Cato and all us together now. You have a happy-sad story. Best you can get in this life is happy-sad.”
Yes, happy-sad is as good as it ever gets in Dogtown.
Another character tells us: “… Cape Ann was the last place that God created, since it was where He dumped all the rocks that were of no use elsewhere.” Then there was the colorful Mrs. Stanley, a madam and her two whores, lesbians, who would only do oral sex on the men customers.
Very young Sammy Stanley ran away from his brutal home as a very young child and was taken in by Mrs. Stanley. He was a “pretty” blond boy, raised in the whore house learning to be a careful thief. Later his good looks and clever ways allow him to move the 2 miles to more respectable Gloucester and become a successful and respected “gentleman,” at least to all except the former Dogtowners who knew him from youth.
There was the much hated Tammy Younger, who, when we meet her is anything but young, and the nastiest, scariest woman in the area, thought by most to be a witch. She was among the very last of Dogtown’s residents to die.
The last two humans left in Dogtown were the two black characters, Ruth and Cornelius. And Diamant even tells us that the dogs were down from 28 when Ruth arrived to 5 when Easter left. Later she even adds that after the death of Cornelius, the very last Dogtowner, there were only three dogs left.
Diamant’s characters are brilliantly constructed and riveting. The harsh life in this rural area in the early 1800s is believable and the spirit of Dogtown as a whole is convincing. It is a marvelous novel, but certainly sad. As Mimba says, a happy-sad life, even, would quality as a blessing.
The name “Dogtown” for a community in the U.S. has a long history. Here in St. Louis a 1904 newspaper says there were at least 8 neighborhoods in this city alone with the name Dogtown. Now, this 105 years later, only “our” Dogtown survives. There are dozens of Dogtowns in the U.S. today and at least four of them have some national recognition, one for skateboarding, one for music, ours for its history as an Irish neighborhood in St. Louis (a culturally true view, but ethnically false one), and one other, in the south.
In Diamant’s book one topic that I was most looking for never came up: How did that Dogtown get its name. There may be a hint by Diamant, given her frequent focus on the dogs of Dogtown, that it had to do with the number of dogs itself.
In our neighborhood here in St. Louis that is a significant question: How did (our) Dogtown get its name. We really don’t have convincing evidence, though two theories have much to say for them from the point of view of historical evidence. Another, one that claimed the neighborhood’s name harks back to Iggorot Indians from Indonesia, who were an “exhibition” at the 1904 World’s Fair, and who were said to be coming to our neighborhood to steal dogs to eat. This view is documented to be false and is a terrible insult of the gentle and kind Iggorots.
For more on the name of “our” Dogtown see:
A NUMBER OF ISSUES CONCERNING THE NAME "DOGTOWN"
Having had the joys and pains of reading this wonderful novel by Anita Diamant I am now moved to read next her most famous novel, THE RED TENT. I’ve had that novel on my “possible books to read” shelves for more than a year, but just never picked it up to read. I had no idea what it was about. Reading on the back cover of the book reviewed above, I see it is: “a new view of biblical women's society; story of Dinah, an old testament character.” I’m hoping to start this novel today or in the next few days at least.
In any case I highly recommend Diamant’s THE LAST DAYS OF DOGTOWN. It is a fascinating, sad but convincing novel. She herself emphasizes its fictional status, yet I came away thinking that the Cap Ann Dogtown must have been much like the creation she presents, inspired by her slim clues.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com