The Last Days of Dogtown
Published by: Scribner
Buy the Book: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, IndieBound
The Last Days of Dogtown is set in early 1800s in a tiny town on Cape Ann, a beautiful, rocky peninsula north of Boston.
The original settlers chose to live inlands, where they built houses and tried to recreate the pastures and farms of old England. Eventually, the rocky soil and rough terrain defeated that plan and the population moved seaward, where fishing and shipping provided a living.
Just before it was was deserted, Dogtown (a pejorative nickname that stuck) was home to widows and spinsters, orphans, and Africans – both enslaved and free; in other words, poor and marginal people whose lives go unrecorded and are forgotten.
In The Last Days of Dogtown, Anita Diamant imagines the end of that dwindling community of misfits – some nasty, some kind – who depended upon each other to survive.
“A deeply satisfying novel, populated by people we care about, delineated in spare, elegant prose…Moving, absorbing and engaging.”
“Anita Diamant gives us a character who doesn’t get from life exactly what she wants but who creates her own happiness, nonetheless. Judy Rhines lives life fully by embracing every moment and appreciating the uniqueness of others and her own integrity. 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. The Last Days of Dogtown transports the reader to a fascinating time and place where even the dogs are compelling characters.”
—Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife and Four Spirits
“[W]hat [Diamant] has created is the overlay of a modern sensibility on an imagined past. Diamant’s descriptive passages are as eloquent as a Congregationalist Šand her theme—that life teems even as it dwindles — has all the more power for its subtle, unsentimental articulation.”
“Anita Diamant brings an obscure piece of American history to life with great clarity in The Last Days of Dogtown. The story is one of delicate hope and turns out to be a quiet tribute to love’s power. Diamant captures with imagination and credibility the people of a unique place and time. In casting her own spell over the Dogtowners, Diamant offers her readers the opportunity to appreciate the humanity that transcends both.”
—The Miami Herald
“[A] superb historical novel. With its cast of thoroughly engaging characters, Diamant’s gripping tale is so bittersweet and haunting as to make one weep.”
—The Baltimore Sun
“A group of savvy women in early-1800s Massachusetts refuse to live by society’s rules. Their dramas are soap opera juicy—but much better written.”
“Diamant’s fans won’t be surprised to see that she continues to excel at creating memorable charactersŠ But the character that’s the most moving is the dying town itself.”
“The book is haunting, partly because of Diamant’s lyrical language and partly because of the townspeople that she creates. The Last Days of Dogtown is well worth making the trip from town on up to the rocky hillside where Diamant brings her characters to life. Their voices—and the eyes of the dogs, as well—will linger with you for days.”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Diamant’s tart observations – about human frailty and a landscape where rocks are by far the most reliable crop – are a pleasure to read.”
—The Seattle Times
“[A] historically detailed story of class struggle, disappointment and long suffering. The characters are transformed into beloved (and sometimes hated), familiar friends.”
—The Denver Post
Learn more about The Last Days of Dogtown at Simon & Schuster.
Reading Group Guide
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. Learn more at Simon & Schuster.
This is a work of fiction that rests lightly upon the historical record, which is spotty at best when it comes to the village of Dogtown.
There was once such a hamlet, set on the high ground at the heart of Cape Ann. You can find signs directing you to its ruins on that rocky fist of coastland, the northernmost boundary of Massachusetts Bay. A local pamphlet, Dogtown: A Village Lost in Time, may still be available for purchase in the bookshops of Gloucester and Rockport, which was known as Sandy Bay until 1840. This little publication contains a not wholly accurate walking map of the area and some tales about the more vivid characters said to live there long ago.