Weighty Theme Playfully Explored


Alissa York
Random House
432 pages

Books in Canada, October 2007

by Christine Fischer Guy

In some accounts of the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, there remains one loose thread, one child (of the seventeen who were allowed to live) who was not returned to her home in Arkansas but remained in Utah, unaccounted for—until Alissa York’s brilliant second novel.

In Effigy, York names the missing child Dorrie and makes her the first thread on the loom of this intricately-woven story of betrayal, obsession, and religious evil. That the massacre happened on September 11 of that year gives it an eerie resonance with the events on the same date in 2001. York draws out large-canvas ideas on an intimate scale, centering her story on a single Mormon family. The story of the massacre itself, played out from the skein of Dorrie’s puzzling existence, loops around the family drama of a polygamous household, coaxing readers to consider how the political becomes personal.

Dorrie is thirteen and Erastus Hammer’s fourth wife mainly in name, for although the conflicted, near-blind patriarch is careful to consummate the marriage (once), she’s an indentured servant who works and sleeps in her barn workshop, indulging his obsession with collecting trophies of his hunting prowess. She accepts her lot as Hammer’s personal taxidermist because it’s an obsession of her own; she approaches the work with the focus and passion of an artist. When she was introduced to the idea not long before Hammer found her, “Her mind was alight. So many creatures in the world, and all of them were going to die.” York delivers the minutiae of Dorrie’s work with clinical precision, the gory, fascinating process of restoring life to a lifeless creature. If the level of detail sometimes seems overwhelming, it’s a fitting reminder of Dorrie’s fixation.

It all began with Cruikshank Crow, her first project, which bears the name of her teacher. She carries it with her into Hammer’s home like a talisman.

When she dreams, she becomes the crow, looking down on a bewildering scene of violence, the meaning of which gradually comes into focus. York relates these dream sequences from a convincing non-human perspective, humans observed from the animal-spirit realm. The bird itself has powerful symbolic value in many cultures; the crow is a keeper of secrets, a watcher, a harbinger of death, a trickster. York’s crow is all of these things, and a device for advancing the plot besides.

The bird’s uncomprehending observations of the massacre renders them elliptical at first. It begins to make sense gradually, alongside the account given by Dorrie’s adoptive mother, whose epistolary presence serves as the through line of the novel. The novel’s several strands lie side by side to reveal the horrifying facts of the massacre and Dorrie’s connection to it. York relates the story from multiple points of view; except for the small children, each character speaks.

Inside the tight circle of the Hammer clan are four wives—Ursula, Ruth, Thankful, and Dorrie—each with her own peculiar fixation: the first wife burns with religious fervour, which is eventually revealed to have less than spiritual roots; the second wife is passionate about her silkworms, which she prefers to the children she dutifully bears Hammer; the jealous third wife has a hedonistic appetite, learned on the stage and parlayed in the bedroom. And then there’s Dorrie. Rounding out the homestead are several small children, all Ruth’s issue, and all named after the charismatic, martyred founder of Mormonism. The simpering, repressed, ineffectual eldest child, Lal, is Ursula’s only son, and she intends to keep it that way.

The two outsiders are a Paiute known only as Tracker, who leads Hammer to his quarry, and Bendy, a double-jointed wonder who keeps the horses for Hammer. York draws them all with rich and detailed backstories. Bendy’s own story could stand on its own as a novella. It’s a splendid cast, with each idiosyncratic character somehow cleaving to the overarching purpose of telling the story of evil done in God’s name.

At its core, Effigy is the story of the human detritus of religious fanaticism as well as a description of the way that humans manage to corrupt the most noble of spiritual ideals, and it’s particularly apt in these times of rising faith-based extremism. It seems fitting that the novel’s title is a word that carries opposing meanings; an effigy can be an object that pays homage, as well as an object used to ridicule. Hammer’s family is a nest of vipers, a mockery of the religious tenets they claim to uphold, and Dorries’s art is one that can’t be practiced unless something dies.

York’s themes are weighty but her exploration playful. She includes salacious tidbits like Thankful’s provocative costumes—one is the face of an owl with judiciously-placed eyeholes, another is a teasing, shifting curtain of fox fur—and 19-year-old Lal’s weird, juvenile conversations with his consoling thumb. The novel brims with curious detail, the yield of an exceptionally fertile imagination.

When the story opens, Dorrie is eagerly waiting for Hammer to return with his latest kill. What Hammer brings to her is problematic in a way that neither he nor the Tracker anticipated, and it hampers Dorrie’s task. She is suddenly and inexplicably unable to find natural poses for the wolf pack, and her difficulty seems to be analogous to the challenge of writing historical fiction: how to breathe life into events that have passed? But just as Dorrie hits her stride, finding poses for the howling wolves, York draws the novel to its cataclysmic conclusion, slipping the skins of historical events over the forms she has prepared for them. At times, York seems to wear her research heavily, but it’s a small price to pay for the wealth of detail that breathes abundant life into this novel.

York’s 1999 Journey Prize-winning story, “The Back of the Bear’s Mouth”, dealt with the isolated and the misunderstood, and her second novel shows that she continues to be occupied with the disenfranchised as she plumbs complex human questions. The writing is artful, sinuous, and fresh, with each page giving up surprising metaphors and phrasings. It’s the kind of story one reads compulsively, all the while wanting to delay the moment of the final sentence, even though it’s clear, early on, that she’ll nail that too.