Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant

This novel tells the story of a dying village in 19th century Cape Cod inhabited mainly by poor widows, spinsters, orphans, free Negros, and other social misfits, as well as roving bands of stray dogs. Though others view the inhabitants of Dogtown with disdain, scornfully saying that “only whores and witches live in Dogtown,” they are a plucky band rich in spirit even though the cupboards may be bare and their pockets empty.

There is Black Ruth, a Negro woman who has chosen to live her life as a man and work as a stonemason. And Tammy Younger, the meanest woman in town, who terrifies children, including Oliver, the nervous and neglected nephew she raises. Also raising a “nephew” is the local whorehouse madame, the aging blonde beauty Mrs. Stanley. This boy, despite his angelic beauty, has a hard heart and spends his whole life in quest of wealth and respectability, trying to distance himself from the Dogtown doxies he grew up with--raven-haired Molly and flaxen-haired Sally. Then there is Judy Rhines, a lonely but independent spinster, who briefly knows a secret and forbidden love with a freed slave, Cornelius Finson, and finds a new lease on life as a housekeeper. And petite and balding Easter Carter, who runs a rooming house and is always there for those in need who in turn feed her desire for company.

This novel charts the lives on Dogtown’s denizens until they either die or leave the village. There is beauty and ugliness, the best and worst of humanity, and humor to be found in these pages. I loved this book, it was like sitting down with a gossipy elder who is a great storyteller and hearing stories of the eccentric people from their past in such a way that they seem to live their lives all over again as the story progresses. This is one of those books I hope to have the time to read again someday.

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