The Last Days of Dogtown

Written by Anita Diamant
Review by Lorraine Gelly

There actually was a settlement on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, called Dogtown. It was a poor, small place; its real name was Commons Settlement. The people living there, mostly outcasts, were reviled by residents of neighboring towns. Judy Rhines, the main character followed throughout the book, does not mind being associated with the many dogs who roam the area; they are gentle and associate lightly with their human neighbors.

The story opens in the bitter winter of 1814 as Judy is on her way to a wake. At this point there are still a couple of dozen people in the settlement. There is Easter, whose home is the meeting place for villagers and visitors alike, and her boarder, Ruth, one of two freed slaves living in the area. The little town even boasts a brothel, with a classy madam and two rather simple “working girls.”

This is almost a collection of short stories touching on and following each of the Dogtowners through a portion of their lives, until the last person is left living there in a rundown cottage. The author simply but lovingly tells us the tales, some of them sad, some happy, some are just life. The characters are varied, and the good shines through most, but there are bad apples too. The reader is privy to the day-to-day lives of poor people in New England in that era; the soil was too rocky to harvest much, and the villagers had to find ways to earn their daily bread. Well written and told with love and affection, this is a sometimes bittersweet but charming book.