The strange history of an abandoned colonial settlement-turned-wilderness.
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Founded during the time of pirate attacks and raids by native Americans, Dogtown offers plenty of material to color East’s historical chapters. She alternates these with chapters recounting the brutal killing of a schoolteacher in 1984 that shocked locals and made Dogtown off limits to many residents. “I lost my woods,” an artist who worked there tells East, and it’s a sentiment echoed by many who had viewed the wilderness as a sanctuary until Anne Natti’s murder.Skip to next paragraph
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“These were no ordinary woods to these Cape Anners,” East writes. “That Dogtown’s forest had recovered from the despoliation colonists and quarry companies had wrought made it all the more compelling to those who saw wilderness as a means back to a purer, more natural Edenic state, as well as a place of solace. It reassured people that all things eventually heal; maybe they would, too.”
The historical chapters are extremely appealing to lovers of little-known Americana (I lived in the Boston area for more than a decade and never heard Dogtown mentioned once), and East brings a thoroughness and compassion to her recounting of Natti’s murder and the subsequent trial that make those chapters of interest even to those who don’t typically read true crime.
Where Dogtown falls short is in East’s declaration that the book is part memoir. Readers, used to tell-all confessionals, will learn remarkably little about the author or whether her pilgrimages gave her the inspiration and solace she sought. (Well, the inspiration is an easy guess, since a reader is holding the results in her hands.) East, as she says of Dogtown, exists mostly as negative space. Some readers may find this self-effacing attitude refreshing, but others are likely to leave frustrated.
In place of herself, she gives a reader a novel’s worth of colorful characters – from the octogenarian constable who polices Dogtown to famed economist Roger Babson, who had “inspirational” mottos carved into 24 giant boulders. He also sold Gloucester 1,250 acres of desperately needed land for its watershed at a huge discount, provided that part of Dogtown remain a bird sanctuary. “Like Moses, Roger W. Babson handed down a set of stone commandments and made water flow from rock,” East writes.
Conservationists, hunters, teens looking for an isolated place to party, the homeless, and local Wiccans (Salem is just down the road) – all were visitors. She’s taken on a hike by a wealthy Republican environmentalist who recounts a double date he went on with Salem’s grand witch.
But the place also attracted “the misunderstood: misfits.” And one of those misfits murdered Natti, horrifying locals who had always believed that “he would never hurt anybody” – despite, as East details, a growing arrest list for attacking women.
“There is something especially disturbing about a murder in a natural setting. It shatters our illusion that nature is our protector, a force that inspires goodness,” East writes. (She must not have read The Red Badge of Courage in high school.) “But people failed to see the human wildness that had been quietly, slowly evolving in Dogtown. Boys who had once run through these woods aiming slingshots at squirrels had grown into men whose woodland escapades became increasingly deviant.”
Dogtown’s future remains shaky, according to conservationists whom East interviews near the end of the book. For builders, any undeveloped land near Boston remains a tempting target, and only about half the acreage has protected status. “Dogtown” shows what a misfortune it would be if “one of these strange wild places,” as Hartley put it, were lost.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.