Can the same landscape that influenced painters and poets also inspire murder? Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town weaves a 1984 murder of a beloved schoolteacher with the troubled past of a colonial ghost town outside Gloucester, Massachusetts, that's sheltered pirates, runaway slaves and witches since the Revolutionary War. Author Elyssa East won the 2010 L.L. Winship/P.E.N. New England Award, and her book was an Editor's Choice Selection of the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
How have the people of Gloucester responded to the book?
There was a rumor that when Sebastian Junger was writing The Perfect Storm, someone was threatening to beat him up and run him out of town. I was told this as a cautionary tale: "Look, missy, don't expect to fool us with your Southern charm." Because even if you write a book about fluffy kittens, you're going to anger somebody.
But people have been overwhelmingly supportive of the book. It's one of America's most unique and enigmatic landscapes and it deserves to be known. I wanted to raise awareness about this place. It's influenced Marsden Hartley's paintings and Charles Olson's poetry.
Your treatment of Peter Hodgkins (convicted of murdering Anne Natti) is very even-handed. Were you concerned people wanted a stronger condemnation?
There's a lot of sympathy for the Hodgkins family. Peter was one of Gloucester's own. One of the things that interested me in this story is that many people have said they have forgiven him. They don't want him back in the community, but they forgive him. That has been moving and meaningful to me. That sense of closure.
I originally came to Dogtown not knowing about the murder. People told me the story to say "be careful in the woods by yourself," but it also seemed they needed to unburden something. Twenty-five years later people were still affected by the event. Violent tragedy does endure.
Dogtown has such a rich history. Would you still have written the book if there was no murder?
The murder did provide a finality, and it became a turning point in the area's conservation. Developers wanted to bulldoze it and put condos there. People were willing to fight to save Dogtown, because of its stories and its history of sheltering outsiders. The fact that this wild place could still exist, so close to Boston on this populous island, was definitely part of the mystery to me.
Is it important to have a place where you can still get lost?
Yes. It's important for the imagination. There's getting lost as a poetic experience, which enables you to experience a place for itself and encounter it on its own terms. And there's getting lost when it's not safe and terrifying. Dogtown is an acceptable place to get lost. You're always within a few miles of a road. I recently went there with people from the Boston Herald and managed to get them lost as well. Even people who live on the edge of Dogtown manage to get lost. It's like the Bermuda Triangle.
Which landscapes have shaped your life?
I grew up in Marietta, Georgia, next to a Civil War battlefield. My friend's grandmother's house had been a hospital during the war. The church I went to had been a hospital. I was convinced all these places were haunted when I was a kid. It's not that there was a specific ghost that I ever saw. Just a feeling I had. It's not just geography, it's also history. And how much a landscape absorbs that history.
Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town is now available in paperback.