Thursday, December 24, 2009

Elyssa East's "Dogtown"

Elyssa East received her B.A. in art history from Reed College and her M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she was the recipient of three prestigious fellowships: the Susan G. Hertog Research Assistantship, a Departmental Research Assistantship, and a Writing Division Merit Fellowship. Her Master’s thesis — a draft of the Dogtown manuscript — won an M.F.A. Faculty Selects award. Elyssa has received additional awards and fellowships from the Ragdale, Jerome, and Ludwig Vogelstein Foundations; the University of Connecticut; and the Phillips Library.

She applied “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, and reported the following:
Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town interlaces the true story of the area known as Dogtown — an isolated colonial ruin and surrounding 3,000-acre woodland in seaside Gloucester, Massachusetts — with a brutal murder that took place there in 1984. Dogtown’s peculiar atmosphere — the land is strewn with giant boulders and has been compared to Easter Island and Stonehenge — and eerie past deepened the pall of this horrific tragedy that continues to haunt Gloucester even today.

On p. 99, a chapter about the area’s early history begins. It is 1737, but “Dogtown” does not yet exist. In its place stands the Commons Settlement, a thriving colonial village that was mere sixteen years old. The Commons Settlement’s future seemed bright, but town oligarch Nathaniel Coit began fighting a decision to move a meetinghouse that would inadvertently hasten this upstanding community’s decline. Other, larger forces were also at work to transform the village. After losses sustained during the American Revolution decimated the Commons Settlement’s population, the area was abandoned. Only war widows who were rumored to be witches and kept dogs for protection and other desperately poor residents including some former slaves remained. The village became known as Dogtown at this time.

This demise is foreshadowed on p. 99 in the chapter title, “Dooming the Seats,” an eighteenth century expression for the mandatory assigned seating in Puritan meetinghouses. These seating arrangements not only corresponded to one’s stature in the community, they were thought to reflect one’s proximity to God, and thus were taken very seriously. And each time a meetinghouse was relocated, a new seating chart was created. Outraged against potentially losing his high-ranking perch, Nathaniel Coit launched a campaign against moving the edifice. The ensuing twelve-year dispute splintered the town and further isolated the Commons Settlement community.

In 1984, another man acting alone — a mentally disturbed local outcast — crushed the skull of a beloved schoolteacher on a rainy summer morning as she walked in Dogtown’s woods. Like Coit’s dispute, the murderer’s actions have had a profound impact on Dogtown ever since, helping to perpetuate its reputation as a dark, menacing place.

Dogtown’s chapters alternate between the story of this murder and the area’s history, and eventually intersect. All the while they explore how much place shapes human behavior and how human actions have influenced the forlorn, enigmatic reputation of this forgotten American landscape.
Read the prologue to Dogtown, and view the author's video introduction to the book.

Visit the official Dogtown website.

--Marshal Zeringue