- Fizzy Thoughts: The Last Days of Dogtown

The Last Days of Dogtown

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


The Last Days of Dogtown
Anita Diamant
July 2006
288 pages

I’m going for something a little different this time. Because while I really enjoyed this book, I just can’t think of what to write. So I copied all of the editorial reviews from Barnes and Noble, and I’m going to respond to their thoughts. Which means this will be long on content...but short on thought.

From Barnes & Noble:
The setting: early-19th-century Massachusetts. A motley array of stragglers are eking out a bare survival in a decrepit hamlet nicknamed Dogtown because of its scavenger packs of wild canines. These stubborn, weary castoffs live on society's edge -- as widows, witches, spinsters, whores, and freed slaves, they have no other choice. None of them know that Judy Rhines, the middle-aged maiden who lives among them, harbors a secret that could destroy this last refuge. This is Anita Diamant's most powerful novel since The Red Tent.

"A motley array of stragglers are eking out a bare survival in a decrepit hamlet nicknamed Dogtown because of its scavenger packs of wild canines"…whoa, someone likes the adjectives a little too much. And I’m not sure that Judy’s secret could destroy Dogtown. This review makes it seem like the big secret is what drives this book. And that's just wrong.

From the Publisher:
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.

This is good…I can get behind this synopsis. It includes a nice summary of the main characters. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say extraordinary, but it was a damn good read.

The New York Times Book Review - Chelsea Cain
…a lovely and moving portrait of society's outcasts living in an unforgiving and barren but harshly beautiful landscape.

Again with the adjectives. And those ellipses makes me wonder what came before.

The Washington Post - Donna Rifkind
Diamant's new novel is not, as its publisher claims, a work of historical fiction. More accurately, what she has created—as she did in her bestselling first novel, The Red Tent—is the overlay of a modern sensibility on an imagined past…In The Red Tent Diamant used a gaudy, Technicolor style to engineer her Old Testament visions of sex and violence, while The Last Days of Dogtown is as plain as sunlight on polished wood. But in both books, she has managed to find an appropriate (if not a true) vocabulary to conjure up a world.

How would you know it wasn’t true, Donna? Were you there? And it is so historical fiction. That's just as plain as sunlight on polished wood. Whatever that means.

Publishers Weekly
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.

Dude, way to give away the whole book. Although, to be fair, there really isn’t anything to give away. This book is more about the characters than the story. And this is actually a good synopsis. Major points for stating the book has a melancholy tone...I found that to be quite true.

Kirkus Reviews
A dying Massachusetts town in the early decades of the 19th century forms the evocative backdrop for a richly imagined cast of characters. Indeed, Diamant throws almost too many people at us simultaneously in the opening chapter. Seventeen characters are introduced in considerable detail at the 1814 wake for one of the few remaining men in the "collection of broken huts and hovels" derisively called Dogtown by its more prosperous neighbors on Cape Ann. The women who gather to bid farewell to Abraham Wharf include mysterious Black Ruth, an African who dresses in men's clothes; wizened Easter Carter, who keeps a meager tavern in her home; vicious Tammy Younger, reputed to be a witch; a trio of bedraggled prostitutes; and warmhearted Judy Rhines, who will stand at the novel's emotional center. The only living man present is brutal John Stanwood; two boys there, Sammy Stanley and Oliver Young, will find very different paths for themselves over the next 20 years. Diamant quickly and obliquely sketches complex relationships among characters we have just met, which may be initially confusing or even annoying to some readers. But as the narrative pulls back to reveal various individuals' pasts, she skillfully elicits sympathy for many of these hard-pressed people and makes even the nastiest of them creepily fascinating. All of Dogtown's residents have suffered blows from a brutal society, or fate's random workings, or both. The saddest story is the deep, thwarted love of Judy and Cornelius Finson, a free African who happily shared her bed for a few years until warned off by a local racist. They long for each other as they pursue separate destinies and as Dogtown grows poorer and shabbier. Anyone who can leaves, but only Oliver finds a happy marriage and children. One by one, the inhabitants die off, and Diamant does not spare us the grim details. This is a deeply satisfying novel, populated by people we care about, delineated in spare, elegant prose. Moving, absorbing and engaging: first-rate fiction that will appeal to the literary-minded as well as those in search of just a plain-old good read.

Hello. Your review needs a good editor. And can you not keep up? The first chapter wasn’t that over-whelming.

6 comment(s):

Ramya said...

interesting review.. it felt more like a review of the reviews.. very interesting idea..and i know what you mean.sometimes, i finish a book and just don't know what to write about it..

Beth F said...

Thanks for the thoughts! I thought the Red Tent was interesting but I didn't think much of Good Harbor. Maybe I'll give this one a shot one of these days.

Happy Turkey Day.

jessi said...

Interesting way to review. :) I love Diamant, and will keep an eye out for it.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Dar said...

That was an interesting way to reveiw the book-lol. I do believe I have this book lurking on the shelves somewhere and I fully intend to read it next year.

Bogsider said...

I am going to read this one. I liked The Red Tent (but felt perhaps it could've been a little shorter than it was) and this one sounds very interesting. Thanks for posting your thoughts on the reviews.

Veens said...

so basically u really liked the book :)

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. ~S.I. Hayakawa

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
~St. Augustine

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
~Mark Twain

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