Synopses & Reviews
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.
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. Agent, Amanda Urban." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Basing this novel loosely in fact, Diamant adeptly manages to evoke the minutiae of everyday living in an all but forgotten place and time in history." Booklist
"Diamant has a gift for storytelling and breathes life into this dying town and its eccentric inhabitants." Library Journal
"Both Judy and the haunted New England landscape evoke something of the world of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
and his Hester Prynne, who also defies convention by following her own passion." Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife and Four Spirits
"A deeply satisfying novel, populated by people we care about, delineated in spare, elegant prose....Moving, absorbing and engaging." Kirkus Reviews
"The book has a compelling, page-turning pull...with spare yet vividly descriptive prose." Boston Globe
"[Diamant's] theme that life teems even as it dwindles has all the more power for its subtle, unsentimental articulation." The Washington Post
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. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; Rendered in stunning, haunting detail, with Diamant's keen ear for language and profound compassion for her characters, andlt;iandgt;The Last Days of Dogtownandlt;/iandgt; is an extraordinary retelling of a long-forgotten chapter of early American life.
About the Author
Anita Diamant is the bestselling author of the novels andlt;iandgt;The Boston Girlandlt;/iandgt;, andlt;iandgt;The Red Tent, Good Harbor,andlt;/iandgt; andlt;iandgt;The Last Days of Dogtownandlt;/iandgt;, and andlt;iandgt;Day After Nightandlt;/iandgt;, and the collection of essays, andlt;iandgt;Pitching My Tent.andlt;/iandgt; An award-winning journalist whose work appeared in andlt;iandgt;The Boston Globe Magazineandlt;/iandgt; and andlt;iandgt;Parenting,andlt;/iandgt; she is the author of six nonfiction guides to contemporary Jewish life. She lives in Massachusetts. Visit her website at AnitaDiamant.com.
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.