Having read author Anita Diamant's controversial first novel, The Red Tent, I didn't know quite what to expect from her latest effort, The Last Days of Dogtown (and, before I continue: no, it has nothing to do with Z-boys or skating culture). I knew it was about a group of misfits living in a small New England town back in the day. But would it have the same passionate quality and dark undertones as that of its counterpart?
No. It does not. The language, characters and stories are understated and sparse, much like its rugged setting. A distinctive New England ethos pervades the pages, and while The Last Days of Dogtown lacks the same intense drama that made The Red Tent so memorable, this novel more than makes up for it in its characters and sense of place.
The book recounts the stories of the last few remaining residents of a dwindling village in the early 19th century inhabited by widows, orphans, drunkards, spinsters, outcasts, philanderers and so-called witches. Diamant tells their stories giving insight into their backgrounds, aspirations, motivations and hidden desires. You meet sweet and lonely Judy Rhines, who pines for her first and only love Cornelius Finson, a mysterious and reserved "African". There's Easter Carter, who owns the largest house in Dogtown and operates an informal tavern, and Black Ruth, aka John Woodsman, the reticent female stonemason who dresses as a man and boards in Ruth's attic.
You also hear the story of the town's madame Mrs. Stanley, the two pathetic prostitutes she keeps, Molly and Sally, her enterprising, ambitious charge Sammy Stanley and her pimp of sorts, the violent alcoholic John Stanwood. And then there's Oliver Younger and his bitter, ornery aunt Tammy. Indeed Oliver's story happens to be the only truly happy one in the entire novel. Happiness being a rare commodity in Dogtown.
In her Author's Note, Diamant implies that she was inspired with the idea after reading a pamphlet and then doing some subsequent research on an actual hamlet once known as Dogtown which has since long perished. She writes, "Ã¢Â¿Â¦the death of a village, even one as poor and small as Dogtown, is not an altogether trivial thing. Surely there was value in the quiet lives lived among those bouldersÃ¢Â¿Â¦"
The premise and organization of The Last Days of Dogtown (the chapters, except for the first in which you are introduced to all the major players, are each dedicated to a particular character's story with the occasional appearance of one or another) seems like an elaborate writing exercise. One in which you take a found photo of a grade school class and then proceed to write a story about each student. The characters are all in one place and are linked in some way but they have totally different backgrounds and will all meet different fates.
What struck me the most was the way in which people in the community helped one another though they were all destitute and of meager means. People bartered goods (a few eggs for a jar of jam) and did odd jobs for a place to stay. It made me wonder if people would help each other in the same way today. Would you take in a down on his luck neighbor in exchange for him doing a household chore like your laundry? Have we lost our sense of community?
I was also moved by the unrealized love and interracial relationship between Judy and Cornelius. Although blacks (really all people of color) and whites lived in separate communities with distinct physical and social boundaries, in towns and villages as small as Dogtown, those boundaries must have broken down enough for each to be able to live in fairly close proximity. In which case, intimate relationships would have the possibility of springing up. However, just because they may have happened doesn't mean they were accepted.
As illustrated by these two characters, who held a life-long love for one another but were never able to publicly acknowledge their feelings. Judy and Cornelius could never acknowledge their love and their relationship was doomed from the very start on the sole basis of the color of their skin. And when you look at how few interracial relationships exist today, you can't help but think that, perhaps, things haven't changed all that much.
The Last Days of Dogtown mirrors its subjects in many ways. It is a quiet, self-contained novel that holds many secrets. Nonetheless, years from now, no one will be able to recall its existence. Much like Dogtown itself.
The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant
Hardcover (288 pp)
Scribner: August 30, 2005