The strange history of an abandoned colonial settlement-turned-wilderness.

Dogtown By Elyssa East Free Press 252 pp., $26

Usually, if they want to see ruins, Americans get on a plane. Author Elyssa East headed for Massachusetts’ Cape Ann. There, 40 miles north of Boston, she explored roughly 3,000 acres of an abandoned colonial settlement-turned-wilderness – loaded with stories about witches, pirates, and Puritans, with a landscape of blueberry bushes and boulders that inspired artists, poets, and at least one economist.

In its modern incarnation, Dogtown still inspires stories: of hikers who just disappear, and a 25-year-old murder that shocked residents of Gloucester and changed the way many viewed the idiosyncratic forest in their backyard.

Drawn to the dual nature of the place, East began researching her detailed and involving new narrative history, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. “Why had the land been abandoned in the first place? Did some places have a propensity for tragedy the way that others brew their own dust storms?” Or, she wondered, had the murder itself colored residents’ perceptions of Dogtown?

East had come to the area following painter Marsden Hartley. Hartley, one of the great Early American modernists, found a landscape “so original in its appearance as not to be duplicated either in New England or anywhere else.” In fact, the land he compared to Stonehenge and Easter Island helped lift him out of a crippling depression that had left him unable to paint. Hartley’s paintings of Dogtown had inspired East as an art history student, and seeking to fill a hollow feeling of dread, she decided to follow him to the source of his own inspiration. (On her first two trips, East goes hiking alone and scares herself silly. She runs into tripods that remind her of “The Blair Witch Project,” and finds out later that the mysterious structures were built by Boy Scouts getting their shelter badge.)

Hartley wasn’t the only artist to be moved by Dogtown. Writers as diverse as poet Charles Olson and Shep Abbott, screenwriter of the 1980s cult horror movie “C.H.U.D,” have been drawn to the area. The latter, also a documentary filmmaker, wrote screenplays sitting in a platform in a tree, and gives East a guided tour of the woods that used to terrify him as a child. Beforehand, East bought one of Abbott’s Dogtown maps. On one side, he drew a fanciful, colorful map, which reminded East of “Narnia, only better because Dogtown was real,” and reproduced a black-and-white guide to the ruins on the other. “I would eventually come to understand that Shep’s map accurately captured Dogtown’s two natures: a mythical, reclaimed wilderness full of life and color on one side, and a brittle, haunted ruin on the other,” East writes.

The settlement was founded in the late 1600s and abandoned in 1839, when Dogtown’s last living resident was taken to the poorhouse, where he died a week later. The area’s fortunes, East recounts, were broken by the Revolutionary War, when impoverished widows and freed slaves became the only people left in the settlement.

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.

“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.

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