Near the historic seaside community of Gloucester, Massachusetts, lies a 3,600-acre woodland known as Dogtown. Once a colonial village, it was abandoned nearly 200 years ago—although “abandoned” might not be the appropriate term. Its history of pirates, witches, ghosts and unearthly forces has been a magnet ever since to those seeking a closer commune with all of nature’s forces. One such person is Elyssa East. Her book Dogtown is at once a memoir, a narrative of the region’s history and the story of the violent crime that occurred there in 1984.
Growing up in Georgia, East was fed on tales of“Revolutionary and Civil War heroes, and of plantation noblesse oblige.” As a child, she wanted to be like these people, but felt she never could. She believed, though, that there must be a region and a history to which she could belong. Dogtown, she thought, might be that place.
East learned of Dogtown (named for the 18th-century widows who kept dogs for protection) through the paintings of Marsden Hartley, an American artist who painted the giant boulders (many 20 feet tall) deposited there during the Ice Age. Suffering from his own personal demons, Hartley went to Dogtown in the summer of 1931. He fell under the region’s mystical spell and again found his muse. One particular painting, “Mountains in Stone, Dogtown,” captured East’s imagination. As she writes, “I began to wonder what kind of story a place named Dogtown would tell. I imagined that one day I would find this unusual landscape and the source of Hartley’s inspiration, as if doing so would complete some undone part of me.”
In Dogtown, East uses alternating chapters to chronicle her personal experiences, the town’s history and the grisly murder of schoolteacher Anne Netti in 1984. This brutal slaying put a curse on the region that, until recently, kept most people away. Only now, she believes, is Dogtown becoming cherished again.
East’s research is meticulous. If, at times, there is more historical information than necessary, it can be forgiven. She may not have found exactly what she was looking for in Dogtown, but she did find an abundance of material for a worthy first book.
Rebecca Bain is a freelance writer in Nashville.
Anita Diamant’s novel, The Last Days of Dogtown.