The Last Days of Dogtown

The Last Days of Dogtown

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Overview

A magnificent storyteller with vast imaginative range, Anita Diamant gave voice to the silent women of the Old Testament in The Red Tent. Now, in her third novel, she brings to vivid life an early New England world that history has forgotten.

Set on Cape Ann in the early 1800s, The Last Days of Dogtown is peopled by widows, orphans, spinsters, scoundrels, whores, free Africans, and "witches." Nearly a decade ago, Diamant found an account of an abandoned rural backwater near the Massachusetts coastline at the turn of the nineteenth century. That pamphlet inspired a stunning novel about a small group of eccentrics and misfits, struggling in a harsh, isolated landscape only fifty miles north of Boston, yet a world away.

Among the inhabitants of Dogtown are Black Ruth, an African woman who dresses as a man and works as a stone mason; Mrs. Stanley, an imperious madam whose grandson, Sammy, comes of age in her rural brothel; Oliver Younger, who survives a miserable childhood at the hands of a very strange aunt; and Cornelius Finson, a freed slave whose race denies him everything. At the center of it all is Judy Rhines, a fiercely independent soul, deeply lonely, who nonetheless builds a life for herself and inspires those around her to become more generous and tolerant themselves.

This is a story of hardship and resilience -- and an extraordinary re-creation of an untold chapter of early American life. With a keen ear for language and profound compassion for her characters, Diamant has written her most moving and powerful novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781419362866
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date: 10/04/2005
Edition description: Unabridged

About the Author

Anita Diamant is the bestselling author of the novels The Boston Girl, The Red Tent, Good Harbor, The Last Days of Dogtown, and Day After Night, and the collection of essays, Pitching My Tent. An award-winning journalist whose work appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine and Parenting, she is the author of six nonfiction guides to contemporary Jewish life. She lives in Massachusetts. Visit her website at AnitaDiamant.com.

Hometown:

Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

June 27, 1951

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Education:

M.A. in English, SUNY, Binghamton, NY, 1975; B.A. in Comparative Literature, Washington Univ., St. Louis, MO, 1973.

Read an Excerpt

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 coffee-colored 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.

Among the early arrivals, there was but one unlined face, which also belonged to the only breathing male in the room. Taking his turn beside the body, Oliver Younger removed his hat and coughed, trying to distract attention while he nudged at the cloth with his foot to get a better look at his first corpse. But Tammy Younger saw what he was up to and smacked the back of her nephew's head with the flat of her hand.

"What in hell is wrong with you?" she said. All eyes in the dim room turned toward them. "What the hell did I ever do to be plagued with such a nit of a boy? I ask you, Judy Rhines. What merits me the village idiot here as my punishment?"

Judy placed herself between Tammy's squat form and the skinny twelve-year-old. She looked down at Abraham's body, and Oliver Younger saw the sadness in her eyes and wished he had the gumption to say something kind to her. But Tammy would shame him in front of God and the devil for showing any feeling toward Judy Rhines. He gritted his teeth and walked back toward the fire, even though that took him close to the creaking ladies gathered there, the eldest being Mary Lurvey, Abraham Wharf's bereaved sister, who stank of death herself.

Mary's red nose dripped a steady stream as she rocked herself back and forth on Easter Carter's best chair, blubbering about how he'd burn in hell for taking his own life.

"My poor, poor brother," she moaned. "I won't be seein' him in heaven, that's sure. He's going to burn, and it's on my head. It is, for I should have warned him off." She repeated this refrain every time the door opened upon another face, chapped and curious to learn if it was true that Wharf had done himself in.

Each new arrival clucked in sympathy as she settled in, thankful for the warmth and companionship in what had once been the community's great showplace. It was the only house ever to have a second story, even back in the days when the settlement was full of proud men. That was long before it had turned into a collection of broken huts and hovels inhabited mostly by spinsters and widows without children, and few with so much as an extra spoon in their cupboards. Marooned by poverty, or peculiarity, or plain mulishness, they foraged a thin livelihood selling berries and brews made of roots and twigs. For their pains, they were branded "trash-eaters" and mocked all over Cape Ann.

"No one left up there but witches and whores," said the wastrels in the taverns. "They dally with their dogs up there," said the farmers and the fishermen. And all of them traded lies about having it off with Judy or any other skirt that didn't have one foot in the grave. With a wink and a grin, they'd say, "A dog can have his day up there."

It was doubtless a barroom wit who first called the fading village a dogtown. That the slander had stuck with the force of a christening had been a bleeding thorn in Abraham Wharf's heart, and he'd never let the term pass his lips.

Defending the Commons Settlement had been his mission, and anyone who'd let him talk for more than a minute got an earful of how it used to be the finest address on the North Shore, indeed, in all the Commonwealth. According to him, the most respected families had lived there and raised the finest livestock — cattle, sheep, and oxen. Wharf had been their leader — or at least, that's how he told it. His Anne was the prettiest wife. His sheep gave the best wool. His sons had been most likely to take charge of the whole damned Cape. But that was "once't," as he put it.

"He was bitter," said Easter Carter, and she recalled Wharf's much-repeated claim that the war for independence had killed off the best of his neighbors. The ones who returned with all four limbs attached decided against the thankless work of harvesting rocks when Gloucester Harbor delivered an easier living. Buying and selling became the way to making a fortune.

"Remember how he'd say the word 'shopkeeper'?" said Judy. "Like he was speaking the worst sort of blasphemy."

"My brother didn't set a foot into church for forty years," Mary said. "Forty years he went without hearing a word of scripture." Abraham had come to sit by her fire just two nights earlier and asked if she thought that killing yourself meant sure damnation. Mary had dismissed his question with a sour warning to stop talking rubbish, and she spent the rest of their last evening together complaining about her dyspepsia and her ungrateful children.

The memory of that last conversation was a terrible shame to Mary, whose shrill sobs reminded Judy of nothing so much as a stuck pig. The unkindness of that notion caused her to hurry over to the bereaved woman with another cup of comfort. The smell of boiling cabbage, wet woolens, and cheap tobacco seemed even stronger in that corner of the room, and Judy welcomed the clean, icy blast when the door swung open again.

"Well, if it ain't Granny Day," said Easter, greeting a lady nearly as wrinkled and bald as one of last year's crab apples.

"Didn't know if I'd make it in this cold," apologized the newcomer. "But then I thought I owed it to him."

"It's all right, dear," said Easter, steering her over toward Abraham's body as she retold the story of how Cornelius Finson had found him early that morning with a long knife in his own hand. He'd done the deed in the shadow of the Whale's Jaw, two enormous boulders that together made a perfect replica of a great fish head. Cornelius, or Black Neal as some called him, had carried the corpse to Easter, who sent him straight into town to find some able-bodied relations to carry Wharf back to Gloucester for a Christian burial.

When Granny Day opened the door, the biggest of the settlement dogs had padded in behind her. A long-haired brute, nearly six hands tall, Bear ambled directly over to Easter Carter and nuzzled at her hand. Finding nothing there to eat, he headed for the chilly lean-to, which had been tacked onto the house back in the day when there'd been food enough to require a separate pantry. A shaggy congregation was already gathered there, huddled jowl by haunch on a filthy scrap of carpet: Pinknose, Brindle, Spots, Big Brown, and Greyling. One by one, the dogs had slipped into the house behind a two-legged guest, lured out of secret burrows by the unusual commotion and the smell of cooking.

When Bear entered, the others rose so he could take the warmest spot in the center. He lowered himself in his rightful place with a sigh while the rest of them circled and scratched and settled again.

Judy Rhines smiled at the pack, watching as steam rose off the breathing heap of fur. Let them call us Dogtowners, she thought, I'm satisfied to be thought of as one of them. She felt less inclined to claim fellowship with the collection of unhappy creatures in the parlor, each one wrapped in her own dark shawl. And poor, broody Oliver, arms crossed over his narrow chest, slouched against the wall, his chin on his chest.

With his thick black hair, green eyes, and high cheekbones, he wouldn't be a bad-looking boy if he'd only pick up his head and stop scowling. Oliver caught her gaze and seemed to glare back, then took to studying the ceiling. A strange one, she thought, and wondered if he'd ever make anything of himself. It was too bad that Oliver had nowhere else to go. Tammy was his blood-kin, but he might have been better off bound out as an apprentice: maybe some honest farmer with a softhearted wife. Of course, that was a rough gamble, too, as Judy well knew.

Oliver's great-aunt was a terror, but there was no changing Tammy Younger. Her name was often invoked by mothers wishing to keep their children from straying into the woods. They called her a witch and warned that her favorite tea included the plump fingers and toes of heedless boys and girls.

Judy thought of Tammy as a force of nature, unpleasant as a wasp's nest, but inevitable. Then again, Judy was known as a soft touch, having once been heard defending skunks and mosquitoes as having a rightful place and purpose. Abraham Wharf used to scold her about being so tenderhearted. "You take care of yourself," he'd said to her, only a month before he died. "You take good care of Judy Rhines for once't." Remembering his words, Judy Rhines drew her dark brows together and bowed her head. Oliver watched and wondered how she could grieve for such a bad-tempered old windbag.

He'd never seen her look so low. Judy usually wore a gentle half smile that drew people to her. There was a sort of natural pleasantness, an irresistible goodness to her face. Not that she was a great beauty. Her eyes were a pale brown, a shade lighter than the brown of her hair, which she parted in a sharp line over her right ear. In her homespun dress, unbleached apron, dust-colored shoes, and bare head, Judy Rhines put Oliver in mind of a hen. It was not the most flattering picture, he knew, but it was comfortable enough to let him imagine her caring for him in return.

Oliver glanced over at Tammy, making sure she hadn't caught him staring at Judy. She was at least thirty, Oliver guessed, though she could be forty.

Mary Lurvey's weeping had turned into a desperate coughing fit that fixed all attention upon her. In September, Tammy had warned that Mary wouldn't last the winter. Abraham's death would hasten that likely guess into a mystic prediction and strengthen Tammy's terrifying effect on the foolish believers who already feared her reputed powers.

After Mary quieted down, Easter served helpings of boiled cabbage and potatoes. The ladies huddled by the fire set their little china pipes on the floor and exclaimed over the plain fare like it was a wedding feast. Easter spooned more onto their plates even before they'd finished, knowing it would be their only hot meal that day and possibly the next.

Easter was one of Judy's favorites. No more than four and a half feet in her shoes, Easter had a long, beaky nose flanked by small, squinted eyes. But the face under her old-fashioned cap beamed whenever people were under her roof, especially when it was younger folks holding court and calling her "Mother."

It was Easter who'd come up with the name "Judy Rhines," and in her mouth it sounded like an endearment. Most women were called by their family name, like Granny Day or Widow Lurvey. Up in the woods, unmarried women like Easter were sometimes known by their given names, rather like naughty children. But Easter had taken a shine to the sound of "Judy Rhines" and it stuck.

It had been so long since Judy had heard "Judith Elizabeth Ryan," that if someone had addressed her so, she might not remember to answer. Judith Elizabeth Ryan sounded like a woman who owned a Sunday dress, a flowered wool carpet, and a white teapot, not someone who had often made a supper from berries and roots dug out of the woods, or who cleaned other people's houses for a length of cotton, or who kept a half-wild dog at her feet to keep from freezing on winter nights.

Just as Judy was about to take some of Easter's stew for herself, the door flew open again, hitting the wall with a bang that caused the ladies to jump and then coo at the sight of little Sammy Stanley, borne in like a scrap of driftwood on a wave of three wet skirts and a peal of laughter. Dark Molly Jacobs and fair Sally Phipps rushed for the fire, reaching their four red hands to the glow, while Mrs. Stanley closed the door with a polite flourish and walked directly to the center of the room. When she was certain that all eyes were fixed on her, she pulled a bottle from inside a ragged raccoon muff.

"What a welcome sight you are," said Tammy, addressing herself to the rum.

"In memory of Master Wharf," said Mrs. Stanley.

"Too bad the poor old fart ain't here to enjoy it," Tammy said.

Oliver laughed at the rude word, a boyish reflex he tried to swallow when he saw Judy shake her head. But Mrs. Stanley turned her famous smile in his direction as she removed her hood. Yellow curls cascaded out, unbound like a girl's, and spread out in pretty ringlets over a shirt so white it nearly glowed in the dim room.

Mrs. Stanley — no one had ever heard her Christian name — carried herself like the great beauty she'd once been. Blue-eyed and blonde, she triumphed over the wrinkles at her eyes and the slack line of her chin by batting her lashes, pursing her lips, and placing a soft hand upon the forearm of any fellow who drew near enough to catch her nearsighted gaze.

Tammy leered. "Rum, eh? What sailor got lucky?"

"Oh, goodness," Mrs. Stanley replied. "Let's not tread that path, shall we, lest your own misplaced steps come into question."

"You old whore," Tammy said. "You've got more brass than the whole of Boston sets on its tables come Election Day."

Mrs. Stanley shrugged and walked over to see the body, pulling the reluctant child behind her. She placed a hand on her bosom and bowed her head as she pulled off Sammy's cap, revealing a matching tumble of blond hair that hung down to the boy's shoulders. Oliver started to laugh at the girlish locks, but stopped when he saw Judy Rhines frowning in his direction.

Sammy, who was no more than six years old, blinked in terror and bit his lip till it bled. He'd never seen a dead man, and the sudden heat in the room made him swoony. Judy noticed the child's distress and took his hand, leading him away from the corpse and toward the back room. Sammy pulled away when he spotted the crew of dogs, who raised their heads in a single gesture and stared.

"They bite?" he asked.

"Don't fret about them," Judy said, and handed him a cold biscuit smeared with goose fat.

Sammy took the food in his hand but made no move to eat it.

"Go ahead," Judy smiled.

He looked up at her, bewildered.

"Don't tell me you're not hungry."

"Never before the ladies," he said.

"Well, that's very nice manners." Judy Rhines leaned down and said, "But right now, I think you better eat that bread before one of the dogs comes over and snaps it up."

The thought horrified Sammy, who opened his mouth as wide as he could and ate the whole thing in two bites. The salt and sheer goodness of it brought water to his blue eyes. After he swallowed, the boy wiped his mouth delicately on the inside of his cuff, took Judy's hand, and kissed it as he made a brisk little bow. She tried not to laugh and watched him cross the room to sit beside Granny Day.

Sammy had arrived two years earlier, a note pinned to his coat. No one knew what it said, or even who had brought the child. According to the gossip, when Mrs. Stanley read the message the only words out of her mouth were, "Damn me." She introduced the boy child as her daughter's son and said his name was Sam Maskey, though he was known as Sammy Stanley.

No one knew Mrs. Stanley even had a daughter till that moment. About Mr. Stanley, she placed a well-tended hand over her heart and said, "Lost at sea." No one questioned the claim though few believed it.

Sammy knew his grandmother wasn't fond of him, even though he did as he was told and kept still, which was all that grown people seemed to want of children. The first time he sat in Granny Day's grammar school, she'd had a devil of a time getting him to say his letters out loud and thought he might be deaf if not stupid. But then she spied him reading the Bible, and when she coaxed him discovered that he'd memorized all of Genesis and had started on Exodus. For that, she'd patted him on the head and given him a cracker too hard to chew.

Sammy felt Oliver Younger's eyes on him. The older boy curled a strand of his lank, greasy hair around his finger and pouted his lips. That didn't bother the boy. Mrs. Stanley had never shown him anything in the way of affection, but she'd taught him that you were more likely to get what you wanted if you were polite and smelled good, and Oliver was plainly filthy and rude.

After a moment, Oliver lost interest in the child and turned his glance away from that corner of the room. He didn't want to have to meet Granny Day's eyes; he'd quit her classroom long before Sammy arrived. He'd left the Gloucester grammar school as well, even though it had been warm and the girls would sometimes share their dinners. He just got tired of fighting for the good name of Dogtown, a place he hated yet felt required to defend.

Besides, Oliver didn't put much stock in schooling. A man could go to sea or enlist in a war without book learning. A man could come back covered in glory and with enough pay to claim Judy Rhines as his own. She'd see him in uniform and recognize him as just the fellow to take her out of the ruin of Dogtown. She'd cook for him and keep him warm and smile at him sweeter than she smiled at that pretty boy. Oliver longed to speak to her, or just to gaze in her direction without worrying about being caught.

The room grew still as Mrs. Stanley took her seat, and for a moment the only sound was the hissing of the fire. Judy fancied that the sizzles and pops were whispering about the fate of poor Abraham's soul, and she felt a sudden desire to get away from the sorrows and petty cruelties assembled in Easter's smoky drawing room. There was no telling how long it would take for Abraham's kin to make it up to Dogtown. Their cart might get stuck on the road, and February days ended fast: if an axle broke they might have to turn back altogether and try again tomorrow.

The sound of stamping feet outside gave Judy a moment's hope that they had arrived and she would be able to leave. But it turned out to be John Morgan Stanwood, who surveyed the room as if everyone had been awaiting his arrival. A cold wind blew in, while his wife and their three grown daughters shivered behind him.

"Goddamn ye, Stanwood," Tammy shouted. "Shut the goddamn door."

Stanwood took his time, kicking the frost from his boots while his wife crept past him and hurried to comfort Widow Lurvey, her mother. When the old lady caught sight of her daughter, she set up another wail that startled the dogs in the back room and set off a chorus of woofs and whines.

"You woke the hounds of hell, Mother Lurvey," scolded Stanwood. "Too bad you can't wake Father Abraham over there."

He winked at his daughters, who reddened and stared at the floor. The only one to laugh at the weak joke was Oliver, who reached for the deepest voice he could muster. With another male in the room, he held himself straighter and stood wide like Stanwood, who was bowlegged, which to Oliver looked like a proud announcement of his manhood.

Oliver scratched his chest and stole a look at the Stanwood girls, who were among the prettier females on Cape Ann, even without benefit of fine clothes or face powder. Rachel, the oldest, was already engaged to a fellow from Annisquam; Lydia and Hannah were busy seeking husbands to get them out of Dogtown, too, attending church on Sunday only to smile at everything in pants. Oliver overheard that bit of gossip from Tammy. But the Stanwood sisters were known to him in another way.

Oliver ducked his head, remembering the August night last summer when the air stayed steamy even after sunset and the only relief from the heat and the bugs was the creek. He had been taking off his trousers when Hannah's giggle gave them away. He waded silently to near where they were bathing, and from behind the bushes watched Lydia Stanwood's plump breasts float on the water. The other sisters joined her, and four more breasts winked at him. Oliver's member was instantly hard as stone, and as the girls splashed and whispered, he put his hand there and answered the urgent, unspoken questions his body had been putting to him the past year.

After that, Oliver felt a profound respect for John Stanwood as the sire of so many breasts. Indeed, Oliver was so smitten with his swaggering presence, he didn't notice how Judy Rhines's lip curled when Stanwood asked where that damned nigger had got to anyway.

Stanwood pinched Easter Carter's leg as she brought him a cup of beer. "You got something nice for me, old girl?" he asked.

"I got the cabbage for you," she said. "I got the cabbage and beer for everyone in honor of Abraham Wharf. But don't you have a word for your poor mother-in-law over there?"

Stanwood shrugged and walked over to Mary, who hadn't let go of his wife's hand. He whispered something in her ear and then stood behind her chair, where he winked at Molly and Sally and blew a kiss to Mrs. Stanley, who clucked and wagged a finger in his direction. Stanwood tried to catch Judy Rhines's eye, too. He was a black-haired, dark-eyed rake accustomed to having women flutter at his attentions, but Judy would not even look his way.

By then, Mrs. Stanley's rum had made its way around the room and the grannies were chewing over their stories about Abraham Wharf: how he used to brag about a cousin who was a judge in Boston. How his sheep had been the living envy of every farmer up and down the Cape.

"Didn't I hear about Wharf killing an Indian for touching one of his animals?" said Granny Day. Her friends pshawed that tale to nothing: no one could recall seeing an Indian anywhere near Dogtown. But they outdid one another in recalling how loud and long he'd wept at Anne's grave, twenty years ago. Heartbroken, he was, and angry.

After she died, the four Wharf boys had moved down to the city one after the other, but the old man wouldn't budge. "As I recollect, none of them pressed their father to join them," said Easter.

Tammy snorted. "That reeking know-it-all son-of-a-bitch? Where's the wonder in that?"

Judy was still puzzling over Abraham's death. In his last year, he'd taken to spending more and more time near Whale's Jaw. "It's like God Himself put them there" was how he described the rocks to Judy Rhines. "Like a statue that God Himself had a hand in."

He also told her that, as far as he was concerned, the Whale's Jaw was the only proof of God that ever made sense to him. The fact that Cornelius had found Wharf dead beneath those giant stones made Judy wonder if he had lost even that little shred of faith.

Why had he sharpened the blade and killed himself? Did he suffer from some hidden illness or awful pain? Was there something she might have done to lessen his despair? She wasn't sure why Wharf's death had unsettled her so. He was neither a relation nor really a friend: a neighbor, an acquaintance at most. Perhaps it was just the fact of his suicide that gnawed at her. To choose death seemed a terrible insult to everyone who carried on with the lonely business of living.

As Judy pondered, the conversation ebbed to a quiet mutter and mumble. The voices lapped against Easter's walls like water against a wooden hull. Sammy Stanley dozed, his shining curls against Granny Day's knee.

The lull came to an abrupt end with an argument between Easter and Stanwood about money he'd borrowed from her. It wasn't easy to provoke Easter Carter, but there was no stopping her once she got riled. Between Stanwood's cussing and Easter's hollering, no one heard the wagon pull up, and everyone gasped as the door opened on two of Abraham's grown grandsons, their faces wearing matching expressions of annoyance and disdain.

"We're come for our grandfather," said the shorter of the two.

Easter invited them to warm up and take a drop in his memory. "Nah," said the elder, who favored Abraham in the shape of his eyes and the way he held his shoulders, one slightly ahead of the other. "We aim to be home before dark, and our only chance is to leave now. These damned roads."

"You'll be taking me, too," said Mary Lurvey, rising stiffly.

The Wharf boys stared at her.

Stanwood smiled at their confusion and explained. "This is your great-aunt Mary. Your grandpa was her brother."

"We don't have room for no old lady," said the shorter Wharf, as though she wasn't standing right there.

"Two real gentlemen," Tammy smirked.

"Witch," he muttered.

"Now, now," said Mrs. Stanley. "If a person saws a barrel in two and makes two tubs, they call her a witch."

Hannah Stanwood giggled at the proximity of two potential grooms.

Stanwood hiked his pants up and announced, "Don't worry, Mother Lurvey. We'll get you down in plenty of time for the funeral. The ground is harder'n Tammy Younger's heart, so they can't plant him too quick. Family has to stick together in times like these."

Judy Rhines waited for Tammy to turn her tongue on Stanwood for that, but she only threw her head back and laughed, blowing contempt all over the room. Stanwood's face was a map of murder, but he held his tongue and led the Wharf boys to the corpse. The two of them hoisted their grandfather with so little effort, Judy thought she might weep. In that moment, it seemed as though the whole of Abraham's life amounted to nothing more weighty or lasting than a sack of turnips.

This new commotion roused the dogs, who gathered to watch. Bear let out a sneeze and then commenced a howl that raised hairs on the back of every neck in the house. The women got to their feet — slowly and stiffly — as the body passed from the room with the dogs following after, padding out in single file like mourners leaving a church.

It was over. An unfamiliar look of misery stole over Easter's face. There would be no going to Abraham Wharf's funeral. The winter roads were too hard to make it there and back in one short winter's day, and no one but the Wharfs had any relations to stay with in Gloucester. A gloomy silence settled over the room as they all listened to the receding chorus of barking and howling that followed the wagon as it bumped down the road all the way to Fox Hill, past Tammy Younger's house, and into the world.

It was time for them to return to their crumbling houses, to sleep off the effects of the drink and revisit the taste of Easter's cabbage, to mull over the bitter day that Abraham Wharf turned up dead, and Dogtown turned out to tell him a sorry farewell.

Copyright © 2005 by Anita Diamant

Reading Group Guide

Scribner Reading Group Guide: The Last Days of Dogtown
By Anita Diamant
1. Diamant explains in her Author's Note that, though Dogtown was a real village, her stories are woven from the thinnest of historical threads. Does the novel feel authentic to you nonetheless? Why or why not? What things has Diamant done to bring this New England ghost town back to life?
2. On page 20, we learn of the relationship between Cornelius and Judy. Discuss their situation. Do you sympathize with Cornelius' fear? Or do you think he unfairly abandoned Judy?
3. Ruth speaks little and reveals less. What can we tell about her through her relationship with Easter, and what is the significance of Ruth's identifying Easter with Mimba?
4. What sorts of things do the women of Dogtown do to demonstrate their independence? Consider Easter, Ruth, Judy, Molly, and Sally, for example.
5. Discuss the many "forbidden loves" that occur in The Last Days of Dogtown, such as Cornelius and Judy, and Sally and Molly. Why are each "forbidden" and how does their impossibility influence each situation?
6. On pages 195-196, Oliver struggles with a feeling of unease over the suspicion that Cornelius and Judy may have had a love affair. Discuss what, exactly, Oliver means by "the African question." Do you think Oliver's disgust has as much to do with Cornelius' race as it does with the fact that he once had a boyhood crush on Judy himself?
7. How does the last generation of Dogtown inhabitants get free? Discuss the stories of Judy Rhines, Oliver Younger, Sammy Stanley, and Polly Wharf.
8. How does the novel's ending make you feel? Why do you think Diamant chose to end the novel with Cornelius' death, Judy's departure, and her letter?
9. If you've read The Red Tent, do you see any similarities between that book and The Last Days of Dogtown? Do you think you can identify Diamant's "style?"
10. How does Diamant use the pack of wild dogs to parallel and/or illustrate important things about the human inhabitants of Dogtown? Can you draw some connections between individual canines and people, such as Greyling and Judy Rhines?
11. How does Diamant convey the isolation and imminent demise of Dogtown using imagery?
Enhance Your Book Club Experience:
Do some research of your own and see what you can find out about Dogtown and the Cape Ann area. Bring in a map and see if you can make out the various locations visited in the novel. You can also check out the author's website, www.anitadiamant.com, for more on what she has to say about her own books.
Take a trip to a local zoo to learn how pack animals, like the wild dogs of Dogtown, interact with each other. Discuss how what you've learned relates to the human characters in Diamant's novel.
Many areas of the country have preserved "Ghost Towns" for tourism purposes-find out if there's one near enough for your group to visit. If not, choose any American Ghost Town, then research and discuss its decline and desertion. Like Diamant, see if you can imagine the "last days" of its citizens.

Introduction

Scribner Reading Group Guide: The Last Days of Dogtown

By Anita Diamant

1. Diamant explains in her Author's Note that, though Dogtown was a real village, her stories are woven from the thinnest of historical threads. Does the novel feel authentic to you nonetheless? Why or why not? What things has Diamant done to bring this New England ghost town back to life?

2. On page 20, we learn of the relationship between Cornelius and Judy. Discuss their situation. Do you sympathize with Cornelius' fear? Or do you think he unfairly abandoned Judy?

3. Ruth speaks little and reveals less. What can we tell about her through her relationship with Easter, and what is the significance of Ruth's identifying Easter with Mimba?

4. What sorts of things do the women of Dogtown do to demonstrate their independence? Consider Easter, Ruth, Judy, Molly, and Sally, for example.

5. Discuss the many "forbidden loves" that occur in The Last Days of Dogtown, such as Cornelius and Judy, and Sally and Molly. Why are each "forbidden" and how does their impossibility influence each situation?

6. On pages 195-196, Oliver struggles with a feeling of unease over the suspicion that Cornelius and Judy may have had a love affair. Discuss what, exactly, Oliver means by "the African question." Do you think Oliver's disgust has as much to do with Cornelius' race as it does with the fact that he once had a boyhood crush on Judy himself?

7. How does the last generation of Dogtown inhabitants get free? Discuss the stories of Judy Rhines, Oliver Younger, Sammy Stanley, and Polly Wharf.

8. How does the novel's ending make you feel? Why do you think Diamant chose to end the novel withCornelius' death, Judy's departure, and her letter?

9. If you've read The Red Tent, do you see any similarities between that book and The Last Days of Dogtown? Do you think you can identify Diamant's "style?"

10. How does Diamant use the pack of wild dogs to parallel and/or illustrate important things about the human inhabitants of Dogtown? Can you draw some connections between individual canines and people, such as Greyling and Judy Rhines?

11. How does Diamant convey the isolation and imminent demise of Dogtown using imagery?

Enhance Your Book Club Experience:

Do some research of your own and see what you can find out about Dogtown and the Cape Ann area. Bring in a map and see if you can make out the various locations visited in the novel. You can also check out the author's website, www.anitadiamant.com, for more on what she has to say about her own books.

Take a trip to a local zoo to learn how pack animals, like the wild dogs of Dogtown, interact with each other. Discuss how what you've learned relates to the human characters in Diamant's novel.

Many areas of the country have preserved "Ghost Towns" for tourism purposes-find out if there's one near enough for your group to visit. If not, choose any American Ghost Town, then research and discuss its decline and desertion. Like Diamant, see if you can imagine the "last days" of its citizens.

Customer Reviews

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The Last Days of Dogtown 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 52 reviews.
jessJD More than 1 year ago
This book was very unique in its structure. In the first chapter, we meet all the inhabitants of Dogtown as they come together to look over the dead body of Abraham Wharf. Meeting so many characters at once was a little overwhelming, I worried that I would not remember everyone. However, each subsequent chapter tells a story about one of the characters that we meet in the beginning. Through each of these stories, we learn more and more about the individuals who make Dogtown their home. Around half way through the novel, I realized that I cared what happened to some of these characters, I didn't want Oliver to get into trouble and ruin his future and I wanted Judy to find love. Overall, a beautifully written book about a difficult time in early American history, ripe with interesting and entertaining characters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is brlliant. Don't find the first chapter daunting. You will meet all of the town's inhabitants and although it may seem overwhelming, all the characters soon become individuals with their own stories and plot lines. This is a wonderful book. I could not put it down and strongly recommend it to any one who enjoys good literature..
blondestranger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It is hard to compete with the depth of emotion of Anita Diamant's most popular novel, The Red Tent. But, this book was definitely an enjoyable story. Each sad Dogtown story was woven together and inter-mingled with the others. Listening to this book on audio, I actually had to listen to the first cd twice to keep the characters straight. I even caught myself a few times throughout the book catching myself in confusion over which character was which. Uncondidtional love and support contrasted with hatred and in many cases, forced tolerance were fascinating to uncover as we learned more about the backgrounds and histories of each Dogtown resident. Wonderful depiction of the hardship and struggles of the early colonial times.
PghDragonMan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Having so completely enjoyed The Red Tent, I could not wait to read more works by Anita Diamant. In The Last Days of Dogtown, Diamant takes on a much more secular topic, the residents and history of a small settlement on the Massachusetts coast in the early 19th Century. There is historical evidence of such a settlement and many of the characters portrayed in this novel, but the detailed stories of the characters are products of Anita Diamant¿s smoothly flowing words.Equal credit should be given to Kate Nelligan, the narrator of the audio book version, for bringing each person to life for your ears. Ms Nelligan reproduces a wide range of accents, both regional and ethnic, and matches them perfectly to each character, giving each a distinctive voice. The vocal performance does not detract from the story, but blends nicely into it.If you¿ve ever visited a historic city, or seen a ruin in a deserted location, and wondered, ¿What was this really like in its day?¿, Dogtown will appeal to you. With the mix of cast off people, freed slaves, working girls looking to get by, reputed witches, hidden family secrets and gossipy neighbors, there¿s a little something for everyone¿s tastes here. Diamant uses the gossip between neighbors, and not all friendly neighbors, to keep us apprised of all the behind the scenes activity. Each of the main characters comes into focus for some of the chapters and then, makes their exit.Overall, you are left with a pretty bleak picture of life in Dogtown. Given the town¿s location and historical reputation, I¿d have to say it is probably accurate and representative of the times. It is no wonder the settlement was finally abandoned. Don¿t abandon this book, however, it is too wonderful a story. If you¿ve never tried historical fiction, this is a good one to begin with as the history is just sketchy enough the author can be forgiven for taking any literary liberties with the setting. It is also interesting to reflect on how this old settlement and the characters could, with very little updating, be adapted to a modern setting. It really makes you wonder how far we¿ve really come since the early 1800¿s.
jopearson56 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Got a gift certificate for the Friends of the Library bookstore as a gift for National Library Week (or something ... ), and this was one of my purchases. I'd really enjoyed Diamant's The Red Tent, so was ready to try something else by her. This was airport reading enroute to visit family in Portland; got through my airport books fast due to lengthy weather delays in Dallas: much much reading time. Set in early 1800s Massachusetts, and 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. It's a fascinating story without a lot of drama, but nonetheless compelling for that. Great characterizations, wonderful period details., flowing language, so many individuals' stories interwoven.
bkoopman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lives wax and wane, building and diminishing like the moon and the tides. But eventually, unlike the ceaseless rhythms of the tide, life ends, and sometimes there is not a cycle but a period. The story of the last days of Dogtown got me thinking about the ghost towns I've visited, and the abandoned homesteads I've vacated. Where are their stories kept, I wonder. Do they represent stopping points along a long path, or end points? The Last Days of Dogtown is filled with characters that I am glad to have known, for a bit. Some painted surly, others compassionate or witty; all of them familar.
claudiabowman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A quick and lovely read. The characters feel like real people, and Diamant strikes just the right tone.
melydia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dogtown was a real place in early Massachusetts, reaching its peak population around the turn of the 19th century. Near the end, most of the inhabitants were misfits and loners: widows, freedmen, escaped slaves, prostitutes, and supposed witches. This story, detailing the last decade or so of the settlement, is not so much historical fiction as fiction inspired by history. Little is known about the residents of Dogtown, but this tale weaves a beautiful tapestry of birth and death, love and hate, kindness and cruelty. I think my favorite characters were Cornelius and Easter, and though I was disappointed in the tale of Sammy, it was a reaction to his decisions in life, not the writing style. All the characters felt real, like old friends. The time period fascinated me too, giving me a real sense for how ordinary people lived without weighing it down with famous historical events or people. This book was my introduction to the much-heralded Diamant, and I was not disappointed. Good Harbor is already on the TBR pile; I'll have to keep an eye out for The Red Tent.
CasualFriday on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A motley group of people live in a hardscrabble town in Cape Ann in the early 19th century. The nephew of a nasty old bat overcomes his childhood to make a happy marriage with a nice girl. An independent woman falls in love with a free African. A nasty alcoholic thinks he sees an angel and reforms himself, becoming obnoxiously pious until he falls off the wagon again. A nearly-mute African woman dresses like a man and seeks the truth about the murder of her mother.As you can see from the synopsis, this is more of a collection of vignettes than a traditional novel. It reads nothing like The Red Tent, which had a coherent and propulsive narrative despite its many characters. In fact, I disliked Dogtown until about 75% of the way through, when it suddenly began to coalesce for me and I started feeling something for the characters. I ended up liking the book and admiring the structure, although this kind of narrative will never be my favorite.
rcooper3589 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this book at a yard sale and quickly scooped it up. I loved Diamant's "The Red Tent" (which I highly reccommend!), so I was excited when I found another one of her books. This was a fast read- it took me about a week to get through it- which is amazing with how slow I read! I enjoyed the book (although not as much as "The Red Tent") and how the town itself is the main character. I liked how the book "jumped" from inhabitant to inhabitant and how each person's story was intertwined with everyone elses- even if they didn't know it! I found each character was fully developed and well rounded- something I liked. Diamant's women characters are strong and independant (a theme also found in "The Red Tent")- but they're not mean or unloveable like they tend to be in some other novels. Overall, I enjoyed the book. If you're looking for a short, fast and fun book then pick this one up!
booksandbosox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautiful. Very simply written, but the characters are so richly developed that you fall in love with Dogtown and its residents. I think Anita Diamant is one of the most gifted writers of our times. I wish there were more novels from her to read! Though this story was at times quite depressing, I really treasured reading this. Highly recommended!
cwmlcampbell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rather interesting, different and fun style of writing. There isnt really one main character, and each chapter is the life of a particular character with all characters lives tied to the other characters. There is not really a climax either. Reading this book was like watching the highlights of a persons life.
dihiba on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and read it in one day. The characters are believable and likeable. I am looking forward to The Red Tent.
barefeet4 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sort of depressing but very well written. The characters came to life with all of their quirks and short comings and secrets.
TanyaTomato on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good - stories of people in a small settlement in early 1800's. I really liked the people and it was heartbreaking to see them suffer. Anita paints a good picture.
kwells on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Toward the middle of this book, I was a little disappointed that I hadn't learned more about the person I was most interested in - the very first character introduced in the book. But as the book went on and the character's lives began to intertwine and to be explained, I began enjoying the book more.
sammimag on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I listened to the audio book and enjoyed it very much. Kate Nelligan was the narrator.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
with characters you will not forget . .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm little over half way thru the book -- giving snippets of peoples' lives makes it difficult to connect with/care about the individual characters. Forcing myself to finish in the hopes it ties together in the end somehow. But at this point, glad it's only 238 pages and that I bought it as a Daily Find, not at full price.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just finished this book in hardback. Loved the characters. All rather odd. I held my breath sometimes hoping for the best for all of them, but expecting the worst. I was surprised many times. Well worth your time and money! A+++++++++
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