New England regional magazine writer East traces the multifaceted history of the 3,600-acre wooded area in Gloucester, Mass., known as Dogtown.
In June 1984, Gloucester resident Anne Natti was beaten to death while walking her dog, her body found stripped naked in the Dogtown woods. That gruesome event, and the arrest and trial of Natti’s killer, provide a narrative center for East’s wide-ranging history. The author was first inspired to investigate Dogtown after she was moved by 1930s-era paintings of the area by the modernist artist Marsden Hartley, whose own story she sprinkles throughout the narrative. She also skillfully folds in stories of pirates who attacked Gloucester ships in the early 1700s; the modernist poet Charles Olson, who lived in Gloucester and wrote many poems about Dogtown, starting in the 1950s; and hallucinations of ghostly apparitions in 1692. These rich, lyrically told stories, which span 400 years of local history, paint a portrait of Dogtown as an enigmatic, mysterious town. East is a skilled writer, adept at setting a mood, and her research about Dogtown and its environs is thorough. However, there are some sections that would have benefitted from a lighter touch or tighter editing. In one particularly labored sequence, East writes about Gloucester’s annual St. Peter’s festival, heavy handedly comparing Natti’s murderer to St. Peter himself. The author also has a tendency to overdramatize certain scenes, as when she describes nightfall: “Blackness was seeping into the woods like freshly drawn India ink, bleeding from the outlines of things to pool at my feet.”
Not without its flaws—it’s the author’s debut—but a satisfying, worthwhile portrait of Dogtown’s historical wilderness.