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Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town Hardcover – December 1, 2009

3.9 out of 5 stars 72 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Adjacent to the seaport of Gloucester, Massachusetts, lies a forested tract of several square miles known as Dogtown. Initially drawn to the area by her interest in modernist painter Marsden Hartley, who depicted landscapes of Dogtown in the 1930s, East discovered that stories about the place extend back to colonial times. In lissome prose, East creates a remarkable depiction of the town that flexibly mixes history, character sketches, and personal observations. Everything East encounters in and about Dogtown seems to warn against, if not repel, human presence; a feeling of intruding upon a haunted place infuses her description of it. Ruins jut from Dogtown’s undergrowth—erratic boulders abandoned by the Ice Age, the wreck of a settlement, modern-day trash, and the scene of a 1984 murder. That’s when a local eccentric bludgeoned a woman to death. That in the backgrounds of both murderer and victim there were starkly contrasting attractions to the woods of Dogtown provokes East’s most acute insights into what the area means to people. An artfully wrought, absorbing debut. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (December 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416587047
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416587040
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #894,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
About 35 years ago, I got excited to hear Harry Chapin singing about (broadly speaking) my part of the world:

"Up in Massachusetts there's a little spit of land
The men who make the maps, yes, they call the place Cape Ann
The men who do the fishing call it Gloucester Harbor Sound
But the women left behind, they call the place Dogtown"
Heads & Tales

So when I got this book, one of the first things I did was check the index and found that the song was mentioned. Next, I looked up Thoreau and found that his journal entry about the area was quoted.

When I actually started reading, I soon realized that this is indeed a book with a little of whatever you're looking for. But contrary to the song lyric, one of the main threads of this book involves a man left behind, not by a ship lost at sea but by a brutal murder in Dogtown. Along with walks on the trails of Dogtown, you'll also find explorations of the area's history from colonists to witches to pirates, and the reactions of an artist and a poet and the author to this strange area of land.

It's strange not only because it's an undeveloped area of land near a major city (not just undeveloped--in many cases it's not even known who if anyone owns the land) or because of the boulders engraved with odd phrases, but because many people feel something unusual about the place. I have to admit I'm one of them. It was the early 90s before I first hiked Dogtown, a few years after the murder featured in the book which I didn't know about at the time. I saw the boulders, and the broken Whale's Jaw, and got lost on the many trails.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Elyssa East's favorite artist produced a series of paintings based on the abandoned Dogtown wilderness near Gloucester, MA. Trying to find some spiritual growth she visited the area, heard some of the typical small town New England gossip that surrounds any area that's been inhabited for hundreds of years and decided to write a book about the place.

It feels like she started out to write a biography of the artist, Marsden Hartley, found that wouldn't make more than a short story then decided to add in the tale of a recent (1980's) murder that took place inside of the Dogtown wilderness when THAT turned out to not be enough to flesh out a book the author then dug up every and any bit of trivia, folklore, rumor and anecdote she could find no matter how distantly related to the main subject, Dogtown. As an example when a somewhat famous poet is mentioned as having spent time in the area we're also treated to the details of a school he taught at, every famous person who also taught at the school even if they had nothing to do with Dogtown. The story meanders; wandering from the past to the present while infrequently touching back on the 1980's murder story.

There's far too much padding added to the book. I struggled for far longer than necessary for a book of this length. In the end the I found it hard to follow and just wanted it to end. I'm sure there are better histories of the Gloucester area out there and while they may not touch on or even mention Dogtown that's probably because in the grand scheme of things very little of real interest ever did happened there in it's hundreds of years of existence.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I thought the topic of the history of a New England ghost town would be really interesting. I generally love history books and ghost towns in general, so I was only too happy to pick this up. Sadly, slogging through this book was a huge chore and there were many times I strongly considered putting it down and not coming back to it. The problem isn't with the content of the book, but with the author.

To put it bluntly Elyssa East is not a good writer. She's an excellent researcher, but her writing style is dry, dull, and extremely hard to read. East's style is very plodding and it takes her forever to come to a point. Instead of really talking about the subject at hand, Dogtown, she spends way too much of the book talking about Marsden Hartley and his art. Now granted, this is what made East passionate about Dogtown to begin with, but the more of the book you read, the more you realize it's not Dogtwon she is actually truly passionate about. Her time and energy would have been better spent on a biography or art history book on Marsden Hartley and it probably would have been better written as well.

The book has too much padding, too much babble, and in short, it's just too boring. It was a Herculean teask to read from beginning to end and as this is the type of book I usually like to read, it is definitely the author rather than the subject matter that was the problem.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Dogtown" is about the area around seaside Glouchester Massachusetts. This area has an eccentric history of witches, ghosts, pirates and strange crimes. Elyssa East, the author is drawn to the town due to the paintings of Marsden Hartley, and how his paintings and life in the dogtown area saved him from mental illness. East intersperses tales of the exotic history of the town with a murder that took place in 1984. A teacher, Anne Theresa Phinney Natti, was murdered while walking in the dogtown area by a reclusive mentally challenged man, Peter Hodgkins. The trial of this man and the exotic atmosphere's history are told, chapter by chapter, until a dazzling conclusion.

I was expecting to really like this book, as I enjoy true crime and history. HOwever, I was disappointed on many levels with this book. East's writing style is evasive and non-judgemental, she attempts to style the modern true crime portion of the book like a mystery but fails miserably. In the historical sections of the book, she attempts to tell the reader of her obsession with Dogtown, and how she spent 10 years writing and researching this book due to her love of the area, but this does not come accross while reading the book. Something critical is missing-perhaps feelings for the characters involved in the stories? For all of the authors discussion of the hypnotic affect the paintings of Hartley had on her, and how they drew her to the area there is no attachment the reader feels for these paintings or the area.

A way this book could have been vastly improved would have been to have had some pictures of the characters, the imagry of the town, and the actual paintings of Hartley would have been wonderful. Pictures would have created caring feelings for the area for the reader that the author must have felt all along. Perhaps in future editions of the book adding pictures to the text would be considered.
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