Monday, December 06, 2010

Dogtown: Death & Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town

See this? This is Gloucester, as you can see it is surrounded pretty much on three quarters of its circumference by water. Technically speaking it is an island because it is severed from the rest of Cape Ann by the Annisquam River. If you click on the image and enlarge it you'll see that much of the perimeter of the island is populated but that big green area in the middle with the circle around it. That's Dogtown.

I've lived here for close to twenty years now and I haven't spent hardly any time there. Once, when I first moved here, I went on a walking tour of Dogtown to see the famous Babson Boulders and my friend Carolyn O'Connor has taken me up to Babson Reservoir to show me the ones near there. A few years back I spent a week sequestered alone in the woods at Walker Hancock's studio while I wrote the final draft of The Old Mermaid's Tale. But, to a large extent, Dogtown is as much a mystery to me as it is to a lot of folks who live here. For that reason I was eager to read Elyssa East's Dogtown: Death & Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. It's a good read.

Ms East came to her fascination with Dogtown through an unusual way, she became enchanted by Marsden Hartley's paintings of Dogtown (below). The paintings are harsh, stark and monolithically mesmerizing and it would have been nice if there had been reproductions of them in the book, along with a map or two of Dogtown. In fact, if I have a complaint about the book it is that it would have benefited greatly from illustrations and photographs. I live here so I know what much of what she talks about looks like but I can't quite imagine how people in other parts of the country envision it. But then again, maybe not.

East weaves a tale composed of equal parts folklore and fact. Fact here tends to be murky at times since Dogtown's founding close to 400 years ago leaves few records and much of what passe for history is really speculation, legend, or “facts” recorded 150 years ago – which was 200 years after they happened. Following her fascination with the Hartley paintings, East came to Gloucester and spent time with some of our more colorful characters. As I was reading I tried to imagine how her descriptions of people I know would sound to people elsewhere. As previously mentioned Carolyn is a friend, so is Peter Anastas. I know Shep Abbott and Bob Ritchie and I've met Ted Tarr, Isabel Natti and Joe Orange so seeing them as characters in a book is interesting enough. Especially since some of them seemed like characters in a book even before they were.

Ms East writes beautifully. Her prose is luxurious and well-crafted and she has a breadth of knowledge that lends itself well to the subject. The book is composed of alternating chapters, those recounting the history and mystery of Dogtown, and those detailing the story of the 1984 murder of Anne Natti in Dogtown. Her chapters on the history and her explorations with guides including Shep and Ted Tarr are beautifully written and I was captivated by her vision. The chapters on the murder bogged down with more detail than I thought was needed but I'm the first to admit I don't read a lot of true crime. People who do will probably find all the details of the trial and the events leading up to it quite fascinating.

Her chapter on the late poet Charles Olsen is one of her best. Though Olsen died long before I came here I did know Vincent Ferrini and, though I had a hard time recognizing him through her description, when Vincent recited his own poetry he was the powerful, thundering, passionate giant she describes and that is a good way for him to be introduced to the rest of the country.

I liked Dogtown: Death & Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. I love the title and it is appropriately mysterious and fascinating. I don't know if Ms East really captured the spirit of Dogtown but she did create a mythic narrative that is bound to fascinate readers whether or not they know our corner of the world. Gloucester has a mystique that is hard to convey but writers keep trying and rightly so. It's something in the smell of the air and the quality of light bouncing off the water that surrounds us – and in the ghostly shadows that lurk in the nooks and crannies of this island.

Thanks for reading.  


  1. When I was in high school we all spent time on dogtown...I saw my first and only rattlesnake there, ran like hell!

  2. Oh, good.I'm glad you liked it. I've been trying to decide if I wanted to read it, now I will. Thanks.

  3. I thought it was good. A lot better than that awful one by Anita Diamant.

  4. I'm most of the way through the book. The book is a good read, especially if you know the place and some of the people. You have captured it well.

    I have never been there, although I've lived in this area close to 40 years. I will go when the weather is warm.


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