The Geography of Our Being

A Review of Elyssa East’s Dogtown


Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town
Elyssa East
Free Press 2009, 291 pages
Nonfiction
Reviewed by Kristi DeMeester


There are places in this world that, despite our best intentions to classify them, cannot be defined. They follow us throughout our lives, just beyond the periphery of our awareness, and as we move, we feel their imprint upon us. We become haunted, wandering through other places, searching for these mystical connections that grew to identify us in other locations. Dogtown—an area just outside of Gloucester, Massachusetts, so named for the dogs that widows of the Revolutionary War gathered for protection—is such a place. With a history painted by ghostly attacks, pirates, and witches that stand in stark contrast to an eclectic group of artists, poets, and would-be transcendentalists, Dogtown serves as a place that invokes both the eerie and the inspired. Framed congruently around the gristly 1984 murder of Anne Natti and an exploration of the boulder-strewn town’s history, Elyssa East presents her interpretations of Dogtown in this nonfiction narrative. Citing her own obsession with the paintings of Marsden Hartley, a renowned Modernist painter inspired by Dogtown’s landscape, East enters the abandoned town hoping to find the inspiration that had infected Hartley some forty years before her first visit.

Dogtown, East’s first book, won the 2010 L.L. Winship/P.E.N. New England award in nonfiction and is on multiple bestseller or “must read” lists. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and The Kansas City Star, among other publications.

Sweeping through history, East explores Dogtown’s past, which began with a clearing of the dark forest. From among the trees, those earliest settlers received supernatural visitations. These visions, these “rollicking apparitions,” as Gloucester’s Reverend John Emerson called them, proved to be the first in a long line of mysterious happenings in the town. East follows this history forward into Dogtown’s pirates; then on to the town’s transformation into a poverty- stricken amalgamation of former slaves, so-called witches, and an assortment of other social outcasts; then on into the attempts to protect the sacred woods by people like the strongly- convicted businessman Roger Babson who had messages of inspiration and faith carved into several of Dogtown’s large boulders.

These were the people who felt the connection to the wildness of Dogtown and felt it deeply; they hung about the place with a fervency that was later mimicked by Peter Hodgkins Jr.—the troubled young man convicted of Anne Natti’s murder who claimed a deep, unbreakable connection with the woods and boulders of Dogtown—and Joe Orange—Dogtown’s self appointed protector. East writes of the poet Charles Olson who claimed, “Anybody that’s ever lived on this earth knows that the earth is the geography of our being.”

Through ten years of research, visits to Dogtown, and interviews, East gives us nothing less than densely-packed text that reads part textbook, part tense courtroom drama. Her descriptions of Dogtown present, at times a lush forest dominated by awe inspiring vistas of trees and rocks that fairly hum with energy, and at other times a dark place haunted by the violence and supernatural happenings of the past. Her visits are book-ended by ominous visions: the first, a hooded man in black, and the second, a portentous congregation of black starlings. It is the description of her last visit to Dogtown, however, that demonstrates some understanding of the dichotomous nature of the town: “I was not so sure I would continue seeking inspiration from Dogtown, but knowing that this forgotten corner of America continued to exist and understanding some of its strange past filled me with a sense of auspice and wonder.”

Among chapters focused on the murder of Natti and the trial of Hodgkins, East brings the history of Dogtown to life, and it is easy to forget—as I often did—that the events she describes transpired hundreds of years ago. The immediacy of East’s writing is impressive to say the least, and her descriptions of the forests of Dogtown left me both fascinated by the deep, stirring connections to nature found there and terrified of the darkness inexplicably trapped at the heart of the town.

Strangely, East herself is somewhat absent throughout the exploration of the town. Despite her forays into the forest, she tiptoes around any explanation of how the town came to influence and change her in the way it changed Hartley. Readers looking for a more confessional writing style should look elsewhere; however, if readers can appreciate East’s vanishing into her subject matter, they will find a quiet richness buried under the text. Time and again, I found myself lost in the world East creates, and it is this losing, and therefore, defining, of the self that she conveys in her writing concerning Dogtown.


Kristi DeMeester lives, writes speculative fiction, and teaches high school literature in Atlanta, Georgia. Previous works have appeared in Airplane Reading, DecomP Magazine, Free Inquiry Magazine, and as a part of Sam Quinones’s Tell Your True Tale project. She blogs at www.oneperfectword.blogspot.com.



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