Witch Hunts in America
Book Review: Last Days of Dogtown
Diamant Anita. The Last Days of Dogtown. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
The Last Days of Dogtown, penned by the author of The Red Tent, Anita Diamant, contains a stylized and stereotypical shanty town. It is a town that was to have existed on Cape Ann, Massachusetts around the early 19th century. It is a town ripe for witch hunts.
Dogtown is its name - named for a long standing pack of feral dogs that ran the streets of the village. The town itself is full of drunks, prostitutes, orphans, crusty old maids, down on their luck losers, and freed ex-slaves. All the townspeople struggle with the injustices and heartaches that have crippled them.
Those who can do so have already forsaken the town for greener pastures and happier days. Those remaining watch their numbers dwindle in the constant parade of funerals in the town. In modern times, singer Jerry Lee Lewis alluded to this trauma as always "passing the caskets."
Black Ruth, is an African woman in Dogtown that dresses as a man and rarely speaks. Judy Rhines is a depressive cast out of the home by her father at the age of eight. Cornelius Finson is an ex-slave that Judy loved long ago. Oliver Younger is one of the oddly few remaining children in Dogtown. The population is becoming extinct. The town is dying. It is all a prison of secets of abuse. The author breathes sure life into the characters in her town of dogs. The dogs even have personalities. It is a fascinating read as Diamant shows how these people and these dogs survive.
The purpose of the novel is to express the declining level of morality in American society during the early 1800s and today, by analogy. This was the time in which my great grandfather grew up to fight in the American Civil War. He died and his son had to leave school at the age of 8 to work on the farm, so I can relate to the Judy Rhines characterization. My grandfather was run as far to ground as she was and I can understand her life's grief.
Diamant portrays Dogtown as providing a harsh, cruel, but thought-provoking life amid poverty and the practice of witchcraft. Residents in the "last days" [like the "Last Days" of the church on earth?] are oppressed by ignorance, by sickness and disease, and by racial inequality. It is a dying town being killed under the torture of a kind of cancer of the spirit and soul. People seek refuge form the outside world in Dogtown, just as the dogs sought refuge form starvation and death. In Dogtown, the citizens might no longer be hurt by the forces and issues that attacked them out there.
As the curs of Dogtown roam quickly to and fro, so spread the rumors amongst the townspeople - rumors of witches and fallen women. In this premise, The Last Days of Dogtown is similar to Arthur Miller's play The Crucible that examines both the Salem witch hunts and the McCarthy Era anti-communist witch hunts. Much as in the Cold War of 1950s America, everyone in Dogtown decided to snoop on everyone else in order to get the dirt on them and preserve their own lives. It is surprising that the dogs weren't spying as well. Large companies in the 1950s told their employees to take notes on the activities of their neighbors and they did so - I saw large notebooks full of the stuff. The same thing occurred in Dogtown via wagging tongues instead of wagging pencils. Tongues wag and dogs' feet run. Both represent the fast spread of cancerous thoughts via ignorance.
Slavery and indentured servitude - physical as well as to stereotype and inertia; superstition, alcoholism, poverty, sensuality, misplaced and misunderstood sexuality, prostitution, and racial prejudice appear in Dogtown to indict America as an immoral society. Through all this, the citizens of Dogtown hunker together as a pack, like the wild dogs in the streets, for protection in numbers and even to love as best they can.
Throughout all the negatives, there remains the human spirit that wants to survive and seek a better life. Judy Rhines nurses her old love when he turns up very ill, until he finally dies. She can no longer stay in an area that promotes death and flees to Boston, but she did a compassionate good turn before she left.