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The Last Days of Dogtown

Anita Diamant

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  ‘A deeply satisfying novel … delineated in spare, elegant prose.

  Moving, absorbing and engaging. First-rate fiction.’

  —Kirkus Reviews

  ‘An excellent novel. A lovely and moving portrait of society’s outcasts living in an unforgiving and barren but harshly beautiful landscape. Even as Dogtown’s population dwindles, the book affirms the essential humanity of its poor and stubborn residents, for whom each day of survival is a victory.’

  —New York Times Book Review

  ‘The story of Dogtown is woven from moments of beauty and humanity.’ —Northern Star

  ‘The book has a compelling page-turning pull, as Diamant movingly illuminates an eclectic society based on both “a live and let live” detachment and a deep mutual dependence.

  Diamant beautifully ties these collective stories together, with spare yet vividly descriptive prose that transports the reader into the New England of Hawthorne and Melville.’ —Boston Globe

  ‘This is a classic novel which is sure to be treasured by any reader who recognises superior writing when they read it.’

  —Armidale Express

  ‘Diamant renders these forgotten lives with imagination and sensitivity.’ —Publishers Weekly

  ‘An unusual and interesting story that remains faithful to its setting, both in time and place.’ —Bendigo Advertiser

  ‘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.’ —Baltimore Sun

  DOGTOWN FINAL PAGES 27/9/06 2:06 PM Page ii Also by Anita Diamant

  Good Harbor

  Pitching My Tent

  The Red Tent

  The New Jewish Wedding

  How to Be a Jewish Parent:

  A Practical Handbook for Family Life

  Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying,

  Bury the Dead and Mourn as a Jew

  Choosing a Jewish Life: A Guidebook

  for People Converting to

  Judaism and for Their Family and Friends

  Bible Baby Names: Spiritual Choices from

  Judeo-Christian Tradition

  The New Jewish Baby Book: Names,

  Ceremonies and Customs—A Guide for Today’s Families Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families

  DOGTOWN FINAL PAGES 27/9/06 2:06 PM Page iii The





  Anita Diamant

  DOGTOWN FINAL PAGES 27/9/06 2:06 PM Page iv This edition published in 2007

  First published in Australia in 2005

  First published in the United States in 2005 by Scribner Copyright © Anita Diamant 2005

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968

  (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

  Allen & Unwin

  83 Alexander Street

  Crows Nest NSW 2065



  (61 2) 8425 0100


  (61 2) 9906 2218


  [email protected]


  National Library of Australia

  Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

  Diamant, Anita.

  The last days of Dogtown.

  ISBN 9781741149876.

  1. Dogtown Commons (Gloucester, Mass.)—Fiction. 2. Gloucester (Mass.)—Fiction. I. Title.


  Text set in Granjon

  Map copyright © David Cain 2005

  Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  DOGTOWN FINAL PAGES 27/9/06 2:06 PM Page v To

  Amy Hoffman


  Stephen McCauley

  dear friends and colleagues

  A thousand thanks

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  DOGTOWN FINAL PAGES 27/9/06 2:06 PM Page vii

  DOGTOWN FINAL PAGES 27/9/06 2:06 PM Page viii

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  Whale’s Jaw

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  DOGTOWN FINAL PAGES 27/9/06 2:06 PM Page xi C O N T E N T S

  Author’s Note


  The Death of Abraham Wharf


  An Unexpected Visit




  Tammy Younger’s Toothache


  Strange Sightings


  Stanwood Reformed


  The Lost Girls


  Oliver Younger’s Heart



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  His Own Man


  Easter and Ruth


  A Last Wish




  About the Author



  DOGTOWN FINAL PAGES 27/9/06 2:06 PM Page xiii A U T H O R ’ S N O T E

  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.

  Most accounts of Dogtown’s last citizens rely heavily upon a volume of thirty-one pages, published in 1906, called In the Heart of Cape Ann or the Story of Dogtown. Illus-trated by Catherine M. Follansbee, who had a fondness for drawing witches astride their brooms, it was written by Charles E. Mann. In his prefatory note, Mr. Mann revealed that nearly all his material was gleaned from

  “the memories of Cape Ann’s aged people . . . sweet-faced old ladies, often with sweeter voices, or men with whitened locks and time-furrowed cheeks, recalling the stories told them by the fireside by other dear old women and noble old men of a past century.” In other words: ancient gossip and hearsay.


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  I tell you this so that you will not make the mistake of confusing my fancies for facts. And yet, 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 imposing boulders, under that bright sky. Why not imagine their stories as real, if not true.

  For the space of this entertainment, where’s the harm?


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  The Death of

  Abraham Wharf

  Judy Rhinesdecided to take the footpath through the pasture. It was half the distance of walking all the way down the Commons Road and back up Dogtown

  Road and she wanted to get there early enough to be of help.

  But the going was slow. The winter of 1814 had buckled the field with frost and there was black ice in every hollow. If she didn’t consider every step, she might end up as bad off as Abraham Wharf, who certainly had no need of her hurry.

  The cold seemed to add hours and miles to even the shortest journey through Dogtown. Gloucester, which was barely an hour’s walk for a healthy man in good weather, could seem as remote as Salem in February. It was a gloomy landscape even on a fine day, with its rutted thoroughfares and ruined houses and the odd collection of souls who had washed up into the rocky hills of Cape Ann. At least it isn’t windy, Judy consoled herself.

  She was the first to arrive at Easter Carter’s house. “My right-hand friend,” said Easter, holding out a shawl for her.

  “Come by the fire.”

  Judy smiled at the tiny woman, hung up her cold-

  stiffened cloak, and took shelter in the warm wrap. After the feeling had returned to her fingertips and cheeks, she


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  A N I T A D I A M A N T

  squared her shoulders and went over to take a look at the body of Abraham Wharf, which lay on the floor in the far corner of the room.

  Judy lifted the faded scrap of yellow gingham that covered his face and chest. It was a shame and a sorrow.

  Nobody spoke of suicide much, but Judy wondered if it might be a far more common escape than anyone suspected.

  Then it occurred to her that there was a curious lack of blood on Wharf: if a man cuts his own throat, shouldn’t his collar be soaked through? Shouldn’t his hands be stained, his sleeves caked? Perhaps the cold had frozen it, she reasoned. Or maybe Easter had cleaned him up.

  Before she could ask any questions, the door opened and Ruth walked in, her arms full of firewood. Judy marveled at the sight of eight real logs: the nearby hills had been stripped of trees years ago. Dogtowners burned mostly peat and dung.

  Then again, she thought, Ruth brought mystery

  wherever she went. A stranger would be hard-pressed to see that the coffee-colored African wearing trousers and a cap was a “she” at all. Ruth had never been seen in a dress and preferred the name “John Woodman,” though everyone knew her as Black Ruth. A stonemason, of all things, she lodged in Easter’s attic. Judy still hoped that Easter would one day tell her more of Ruth’s story. She was fascinated by everything having to do with Cape Ann’s few Africans.

  “Hello, Ruth,” said Judy. “What a great treat you bring us.” Ruth nodded, placed the logs by the fire, and retreated upstairs before the others started to trickle in.

  Easter Carter’s was the biggest house fit for habitation in the Commons Settlement, which was Dogtown’s real name.


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  With an eight-foot ceiling and a twenty-foot-long parlor, its fireplace was large enough for a side of beef, though it had been many years since anything so rich had sizzled there.

  The place was large only by comparison with everything else still standing for miles around, and it served as a tavern in everything but name and taxes. Young people and sailors tramped up the old road seeking a good time, and Easter let them have it. She loved having company, and even a corpse was welcome if it fetched in a crop of the living.

  That day, the first visitors included a few ancient ladies who arrived, one by one, braving the cold to pay their respects to the deceased and hoping for a glass of ale in his honor, and perhaps even a bite to eat.

  Among the early arrivals, there was but one unlined face, which also belonged to the only breathing male in the room. Taking his turn beside the body, Oliver Younger removed his hat and coughed, trying to distract attention while he nudged at the cloth with his foot to get a better look at his first corpse. But Tammy Younger saw what he was up to and smacked the back of her nephew’s head with the flat of her hand.

  “What in hell is wrong with you?” she said. All eyes in the dim room turned toward them. “What the hell did I ever do to be plagued with such a nit of a boy? I ask you, Judy Rhines. What merits me the village idiot here as my punishment?”

  Judy placed herself between Tammy’s squat form and the skinny twelve-year-old. She looked down at Abraham’s body, and Oliver Younger saw the sadness in her eyes and wished he had the gumption to say something kind to her.

  But Tammy would shame him in front of God and the devil


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  for showing any feeling toward Judy Rhines. He gritted his teeth and walked back toward the fire, even though that took him close to the creaking ladies gathered there, the eldest being Mary Lurvey, Abraham Wharf’s bereaved sister, who stank of death herself.

  Mary’s red nose dripped a steady stream as she rocked herself back and forth on Easter Carter’s best chair, blubbering about how he’d burn in hell for taking his own life.

  “My poor, poor brother,” she moaned. “I won’t be seein’

  him in heaven, that’s sure. He’s going to burn, and it’s on my head. It is, for I should have warned him off.” She repeated this refrain every time the door opened upon another face, chapped and curious to learn if it was true that Wharf had done himself in.

  Each new arrival clucked in sympathy as she settled in, thankful for the warmth and companionship in what had once been the community’s great showplace. It was the only house ever to have a second story, even back in the days when the settlement was full of proud men. That was long before it had turned into a collection of broken huts and hovels inhabited mostly by spinsters and widows without children, and few with so much as an extra spoon in their cupboards. Marooned by poverty, or peculiarity, or plain mulishness, they foraged a thin livelihood selling berries and brews made of roots and twigs. For their pains, they were branded “trash-eaters” and mocked all over Cape Ann.

  “No one left up there but witches and whores,” said the wastrels in the taverns. “They dally with their dogs up there,” said the farmers and the fishermen. And all of them traded lies about having it off with Judy or any other skirt


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  that didn’t have one foot in the grave. With a wink and a grin, they’d say, “A dog can have his day up there.”

  It was doubtless a barroom wit who first called the fading village a dogtown. That the slander had stuck with the force of a christening had been a bleeding thorn in Abraham Wharf’s heart, and he’d never let the term pass his lips.

  Defending the Commons Settlement had been his

  mission, and anyone who’d let him talk for more than a minute got an earful of how it used to be the finest address on the North Shore, indeed, in all the Commonwealth.

  According to him, the most respected families had lived there and raised the finest livestock—cattle, sheep, and oxen.

  Wharf had been their leader—or at least, that’s how he told it. His Anne was the prettiest wife. His sheep gave the best wool. His sons had been most likely to take charge of the whole damned Cape. But that was “once’t,” as he put it.

  “He was bitter,” said Easter Carter, and she recalled Wharf’s much-repeated claim that the war for independence had killed off the best of his neighbors. The ones who returned with all four limbs attached decided against the thankless work of harvesting rocks whe
n Gloucester Harbor delivered an easier living. Buying and selling became the way to making a fortune.

  “Remember how he’d say the word ‘shopkeeper’?” said Judy. “Like he was speaking the worst sort of blasphemy.”

  “My brother didn’t set a foot into church for forty years,” Mary said. “Forty years he went without hearing a word of scripture.” Abraham had come to sit by her fire just two nights earlier and asked if she thought that killing yourself meant sure damnation. Mary had dismissed his


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  question with a sour warning to stop talking rubbish, and she spent the rest of their last evening together complaining about her dyspepsia and her ungrateful children.

  The memory of that last conversation was a terrible shame to Mary, whose shrill sobs reminded Judy of nothing so much as a stuck pig. The unkindness of that notion caused her to hurry over to the bereaved woman with another cup of comfort. The smell of boiling cabbage, wet woolens, and cheap tobacco seemed even stronger in that corner of the room, and Judy welcomed the clean, icy blast when the door swung open again.

  “Well, if it ain’t Granny Day,” said Easter, greeting a lady nearly as wrinkled and bald as one of last year’s crab apples.

  “Didn’t know if I’d make it in this cold,” apologized the newcomer. “But then I thought I owed it to him.”

  “It’s all right, dear,” said Easter, steering her over toward Abraham’s body as she retold the story of how Cornelius Finson had found him early that morning with a long knife in his own hand. He’d done the deed in the shadow of the Whale’s Jaw, two enormous boulders that together made a perfect replica of a great fish head.

  Cornelius, or Black Neal as some called him, had carried the corpse to Easter, who sent him straight into town to find some able-bodied relations to carry Wharf back to Gloucester for a Christian burial.

  When Granny Day opened the door, the biggest of the settlement dogs had padded in behind her. A long-haired brute, nearly six hands tall, Bear ambled directly over to Easter Carter and nuzzled at her hand. Finding nothing there to eat, he headed for the chilly lean-to, which had been


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