Effigy by Alissa York 


by Alissa York

Published by Random House

448 pages, 2007

Buy it online



A Rare Stuffing

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

It’s the middle of the 19th century and at 14, Dorrie is the newest and youngest wife of successful Mormon horse rancher, Erastus Hammer. He married her because of her skills as an expert, almost obsessive, taxidermist. He now has someone to immortalize and mount all of his kills.

Dorrie’s obsession, and her dreams, will slowly become understandable once we learn of the massacre, committed ten years earlier by a combined army of Paiute Indians and Mormons.

Effigy was born when York read a newspaper article about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and one of their infamous Canadian communities in Bountiful, B.C. “I was shocked to read that the ‘plural wives’ of Bountiful are often little more than children when they are given in marriage,” she recently explained in an interview.

“What would it be like to share your husband? To share my husband. There was a buzz around the question -- the kind of sensation I get when there’s a story to be found in something. This was a really big buzz-from the beginning it felt like a book.”

She did well to heed that buzz because the result is a riveting read and a 2007 Giller Prize nomination. Threading together the stories of various characters often does not work; one strand is ultimately more interesting than the others, and so readers retaliate by skipping text. The stories of Dorrie’s horrific past, Bendy’s background and the guilt that Tracker, Hammer’s Indian guide, tries to expiate, are all equally interesting, however, and there’s more -- there’s Ursula’s story, the beautiful first wife. There’s the fertile wife number two, Ruth, who has already reluctantly produced four children for Ursula to raise and mother with another underway, and then there’s also the story the unloved blond son, the only child Ursula was able to bear.

That horrific massacre in 1857 that so haunts Dorrie is also based on fact. Only 17 children escaped from The Mountain Meadows Massacre, when a wagon train from Arkansas en route to California was stopped and 120 men, women and children murdered in a killing spree that was masterminded by certain Mormons, in collusion with some First Nations warriors, whom they manipulated and then tried to hide behind.

Erasmus is a nasty piece of work, and although he did not participate in that slaughter, it’s clear that he would not have hesitated had he been invited to the bloodbath. He has unhesitatingly and sanctimoniously killed others, and the enjoyment he gets out of squandering so many hours in the killing of animals and in the taking of trophies like wolf cubs and their mother, shows his brutal streak. The fates repay him with encroaching blindness and more.

Thankful, the actress/courtesan third wife, is currently the sexual favorite. She is certainly the least likable as she fulfills all of the hunter’s lusts in an effort to keep on top of his list. She has every reason to feel insecure, however. She has refused to please Ursula by producing children and she fears incipient age and ugliness. While Ursula is the cook, worker and mother of the farm, Ruth bears children as well as silk from her beloved silkworms, and Dorrie pleases her master with stuffed animals. All Thankful has is sexual technique; no wonder she’s looking for alternatives.

York spent copious amounts of time traveling and researching this novel. In addition to a cracking tale, interesting characters and some rich history of a land and a religion seeped in blood, readers are served up evocative and rich imagery and writing along the lines of this metaphor describing how Tracker killed a family of ducks for his employer to take home for stuffing, by swimming beneath them in the lake:

...he reached up with both hands, grabbed the mother and father by their legs and dragged them under. Holding both in his hard left fish, he plucked and added ducklings to the thrashing bouquet.

I would rank Effigy as one of Canada’s top ten reads this year. | October 2007

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.