A dying Massachusetts town in the early decades of the 19th century forms the evocative backdrop for a richly imagined cast of characters.
Indeed, Diamant (The Red Tent, 1997, etc.) throws almost too many people at us simultaneously in the opening chapter. Seventeen characters are introduced in considerable detail at the 1814 wake for one of the few remaining men in the “collection of broken huts and hovels” derisively called Dogtown by its more prosperous neighbors on Cape Ann. The women who gather to bid farewell to Abraham Wharf include mysterious Black Ruth, an African who dresses in men’s clothes; wizened Easter Carter, who keeps a meager tavern in her home; vicious Tammy Younger, reputed to be a witch; a trio of bedraggled prostitutes; and warmhearted Judy Rhines, who will stand at the novel’s emotional center. The only living man present is brutal John Stanwood; two boys there, Sammy Stanley and Oliver Young, will find very different paths for themselves over the next 20 years. Diamant quickly and obliquely sketches complex relationships among characters we have just met, which may be initially confusing or even annoying to some readers. But as the narrative pulls back to reveal various individuals’ pasts, she skillfully elicits sympathy for many of these hard-pressed people and makes even the nastiest of them creepily fascinating. All of Dogtown’s residents have suffered blows from a brutal society, or fate’s random workings, or both. The saddest story is the deep, thwarted love of Judy and Cornelius Finson, a free African who happily shared her bed for a few years until warned off by a local racist. They long for each other as they pursue separate destinies and as Dogtown grows poorer and shabbier. Anyone who can leaves, but only Oliver finds a happy marriage and children. One by one, the inhabitants die off, and Diamant does not spare us the grim details. This is a deeply satisfying novel, populated by people we care about, delineated in spare, elegant prose.
Moving, absorbing and engaging: first-rate fiction that will appeal to the literary-minded as well as those in search of just a plain-old good read.