Dogtown, a remote village in Massachusetts has embarked upon the end of an era by 1814, the locals fading one by one, claimed by old age and a disinterested society. Diamant reawakens the era with her compassionate memorialization of simple relationships existing on the fringes of civilization, where the bonds of friendship are as deep and quiet as a long winter waiting for spring.
Undefined by class or wealth, the residents of Dogtown are a collection of hardscrabble individuals, their lives cobbled from an ungenerous earth, a bare-bones gathering of nature’s remnants living off the land. In the telling, these odd characters come alive, their charity and recognition of one another, save a few unscrupulous souls, forming a loose society on the decline.
Certain characters exemplify the town, one of whom, Judy Rhines, is a middle-aged woman who has spent her life in the service of others, enjoying one brief moment of unfettered passion, all too quickly torn from her by a contentious neighbor. A spinster, Judy has carved a place among these eccentric inhabitants, meeting her own needs and asking for little; “Even my dreams were full of being told to clean a mess, or haul some more water, or stir a pot.”
One of Judy’s strongest friendships is with Easter Carter, an older woman who might be marked “witch” for her healing gifts, living so near so near the infamous Salem. Easter offers what little comfort remains to Judy after the short, but intense affair with Cornelius, cut short of necessity by the threat to her reputation and his life.
There are others, kind folks who have survived their circumstances, reaching out to one another in innumerable small deeds, including the ragged form of Black Ruth, a former slave who dresses as a man for her own convenience, newly returned to the area to make peace with her past, her youth tormented by the loss of her mother at birth, her soul hardened by the harsh days of her existence.
Infinitely personal, yet larger-than-life, these characters are a microcosm of a world where suffering is familiar and a moment of nature’s incredible beauty is transcendent for all the lack of human comfort: “The blue of the sea caught Ruth’s eye as she wiped the dirt from her hands and she felt an involuntary shiver of pleasure at being alive.”
As Dogtown spirals into the past, the inhabitants say their goodbyes, expiring, one by one, with no one left to mourn them or tell their stories to future generations. These are the dispossessed, the unnoticed, Diamant revealing their scattered dreams, endowing them with the dignity of survivors who clearly recognize the randomness of fate.
Diamant proves herself a keen observer of the human condition in all its excesses, from the obscene to the sublime, the depth and subtlety of this novel is an unexpected gift.