It takes a village to create a book by Anita Diamant. In her best-selling first novel, "The Red Tent," Diamant found her community in the biblical story...
“The Last Days of Dogtown”
by Anita Diamant
Scribner, 288 pp., $25
It takes a village to create a book by Anita Diamant. In her best-selling first novel, “The Red Tent,” Diamant found her community in the biblical story of Jacob and Joseph, giving voice to the wives and daughters who received such short shrift in the original version. In her next effort, “Good Harbor,” she continued her exploration of female friendship, this time in a contemporary setting.
In her latest work of fiction, “The Last Days of Dogtown,” Diamant shifts gears entirely. This time, inspired by a bit of historical research, she tells a story about a declining New England village circa 1800. The history part plays second fiddle, however, to Diamant’s own colorful interpretation of a once-respectable place now so in decline that it’s known as Dogtown.
In this setting, the citizenry has devolved to a mongrel lot of widows and orphans, scoundrels and prostitutes, free Africans and a woman thought to be a witch. Diamant paints all these characters with obvious relish, describing an improbable band of eccentrics whose lives are interlocked by bad choices and bad luck.
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Judy Rhines, for example, is a lonely spinster who is in love with a black man. She accepts that their relationship is doomed because the community won’t tolerate an interracial match. Black Ruth, who dresses and works like a man, is a strange bird from afar, whose attraction to Dogtown will be revealed. Mrs. Stanley, a matter-of-fact overseer of the whorehouse, is a reasonable foil for her best patron, the mean but repentant drunk Mr. Stanwood.
Diamant’s tart observations — about human frailty, and a landscape where “rocks are by far the most reliable crop,” — are a pleasure to read. As for her characters’ peculiarities, there’s a little sex and violence thrown in for spice, but nothing that’s too unnerving.
Unlike “The Red Tent,” however, “Dogtown” is based on an obscure bit of local history, which means that Diamant has to work harder to make us care. Yet, oddly enough, she complicates her task by giving the story neither a single protagonist nor a singular point of view.
As a result, “The Last Days of Dogtown” feels a bit like a broken string of pearls — delightful to behold, but failing to cohere.