Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town

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9781416587057: Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town
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The area known as Dogtown—an isolated colonial ruin and surrounding 3,000-acre woodland in seaside Gloucester, Massachusetts—has long exerted a powerful influence over artists, writers, eccentrics, and nature lovers. But its history is also woven through with tales of witches, supernatural sightings, pirates, former slaves, drifters, and the many dogs Revolutionary War widows kept for protection and for which the area was named. In 1984, a brutal murder took place there: a mentally disturbed local outcast crushed the skull of a beloved schoolteacher as she walked in the woods. In this award-winning debut, Elyssa East evocatively interlaces the story of the grisly murder with the strange, dark history of this wilderness ghost town and explores the possibility that certain landscapes wield their own unique power. Winner of the 2010 L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award in nonfiction and named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards, Dogtown takes readers into an unforgettable place brimming with tragedy, eccentricity, and fascinating lore, and examines the idea that some places can inspire both good and evil, poetry and murder.

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About the Author:

Elyssa East received her B.A. in art history from Reed College and her M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She has received awards and fellowships from The Corporation of Yaddo; the Ragdale, Jerome, and Ludwig Vogelstein Foundations; Columbia University; the University of Connecticut; and the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.
 

Elyssa’s book, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, interlaces murder, legend, and history in a Massachusetts ghost town. It was recently awarded the 2010 L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award for the best work of non-fiction about New England. Dogtown was also named a “Must-Read Book” by the Massachusetts Book Awards and an Editors’ Choice selection from the New York Times Book Review.

 

Elyssa’s writing has also been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Dallas Morning News, The Kansas City Star, and other publications nationwide. A scene from her opera libretto, Mr. Hawthorne’s Engagement, was performed with American Opera Project’s Composers and the Voice series. Elyssa currently teaches in the undergraduate Creative Writing program at Purchase College, State University of New York.

From Publishers Weekly:

[Signature]Reviewed by Joyce Carol OatesThis is a work of narrative nonfiction in which I attempt to tell the story of a landscape—Gloucester, Massachusetts's Dogtown. The author's succinct description of her fascinating, richly detailed and remarkably evocative exploration of a long-deserted colonial village amid a 3,600-acre woodland doesn't do justice to the quirky originality of Dogtown. Part history of a most unusual region; part commentary on the art of the American Modernist painter Marsden Hartley; part murder mystery/true crime police procedural; and part memoir, East's first book is likely to appeal to a varied audience for whom Dogtown, Mass., is utterly unknown.East was initially drawn to Dogtown through the landscape paintings of Hartley—a gifted and undervalued contemporary of Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove and John Marin. Led to investigate the landscape Hartley painted, East soon finds herself, like the protagonist of a mystery, ever more deeply involved with the colonial ruin—is it a place of mystical wonder, or is it an accursed landscape? In colonial times, Dogtown was a marginal area of Gloucester said to be a haven for former slaves, prostitutes and witches; in the 20th century, it was largely abandoned and became a sort of uncharted place where, in a notorious 1984 incident, a mentally deranged sex offender murdered a young woman teacher in the woods.East is thorough in her descriptions of the attractive young victim and the loathsome murderer—a devastating portrait of the type of predator of whom it's said he would never hurt anyone. Though the true crime chapters—which alternate with chapters presenting the tangled history of Dogtown—are inevitably more interesting, East gracefully integrates her various themes into a coherent and mesmerizing whole. In her admiration for Hartley, East kindles in the reader a wish to see his works, as well as the allegedly mystical landscape that inspired them; it would have been a good idea to include color plates of some of Hartley's work, juxtaposed with the landscapes. Also, the true crime chapters—written with appalled compassion—and the detailed portraits of individuals involved—the murderer, the victim, the victim's husband and his family, several police officers—would benefit from photographs as well. Late in Dogtown, as if the author's inventiveness were flagging and her material running thin, there are digressions into local politics that will be of limited interest.Dogtown is surprisingly spare in personal information. We learn only a few facts about the engaging young writer whose life was so changed when she first saw Hartley's paintings that, five years later, she was led to the adventure of Dogtown, which would involve her for 10 years. This is most unusually self-effacing, particularly in our rabidly confessional times. Some readers will appreciate the author's vanishing into her subject, which is certainly strong enough to stand alone, while others might feel an absence in this evocation of, as Hartley described it, one of these strange wild places... where the chemistry of the universe is too busy realizing itself.Joyce Carol Oates's latest novel is Little Bird of Heaven (HarperCollins/Ecco).
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