Effigy: Mormons. Polygamy. Taxidermy. Love.

Effigy: Mormons. Polygamy. Taxidermy. Love.

by Alissa York

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Overview

"A small masterpiece . . . Exhilarating and genuinely fresh." ---National Post (Canada)

Set on a Mormon ranch in nineteenth-century Utah, and inspired by the real events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, Alissa York's Effigy is a haunting story of a polygamous family united by faith but separated by secrets.

At the heart of the novel is Dorrie, the fourth wife of rancher, hunter, and horse breeder Erastus Hammer. A pale child bride with a mass of untamable black hair, she cannot recall anything of her life before she recovered from an illness at the age of seven. Her keenest pleasure lies in the act of bringing dead creatures to life through the art of taxidermy, and Hammer has married her not for love, or even lust, but so that she might make fitting trophies of his kills. The matter is urgent for Hammer, as he is slowly going blind.

Happy to be given this work, Dorrie secludes herself in her workshop world, away from Mother Hammer's watchful eye and the rivalry of the elder wives. But when Hammer brings Dorrie a whole family of wolves to fashion into a tableau, she struggles with her craft for the first time in her short life, dreaming each night of crows and strange scenes of violence. The new hand, Bendy Drown, is the only one to see her dilemma and offer her help, a dangerous game in a Mormon household.

Outside, a lone wolf prowls the grounds looking for his lost pack, and his nocturnal searching will unearth the secret tensions of this complex and conflicted family.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429986021
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/16/2008
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 420,406
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Alissa York's highly acclaimed first novel, Mercy, was published in 2003. Her short stories have won several awards, including the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award, and Effigy was short-listed for the 2007 Giller Prize, Canada's largest annual prize for fiction. York has lived all over Canada, and now makes her home in Toronto with her husband.


Alissa York’s highly acclaimed first novel, Mercy, was published in 2003. Her short stories have won several awards, including the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award, and Effigy was short-listed for the 2007 Giller Prize, Canada’s largest annual prize for fiction. York has lived all over Canada, and now makes her home in Toronto with her husband.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

SHE'S BEEN LOOKING OUT for them since the sun still hung over the Stansbury Range. Now, as they finally shimmer into view, it is night.

Standing in the open barn door, Dorrie peers out across moonlit pasture, marking their steady approach. There's no mistaking Hammer, squat as a chopping block astride his giant black mare, his boot heels bouncing even at a walk. Behind him, the Tracker glides. It's a trick of the dark — the Paiute guide puts one foot in front of the other like any man. Seven years on the ranch, and he has yet to take hold of a horse's reins. When distance demands, he mounts up behind Hammer. When given the choice, he walks or runs.

As they draw nearer, Dorrie can see there's no room for the Tracker on Hammer's saddle tonight. His place is occupied by a draped and gleaming form. A jolt of pleasure shoots down through the base of her spine and beyond — as though, like the milk-white body that commands her gaze, she too is possessed of a magnificent tail.

Beside the Paiute the bay pack horse weaves, its burden a multi-toned mound. The black mare trots up a little, perhaps in response to a hay-laden waft from the stable, perhaps just a cluck of Hammer's tongue. The Tracker keeps pace, close enough now that Dorrie can make out the ordinary motion of his feet trading forward and back. She steps out a little, broadening her wedge of lamplight as they enter the yard.

"Sister Eudora," Hammer calls.

Her shoulders ratchet up at the sound of her name in his mouth. "You're back." She never knows what to call him. Mr. Hammer? Brother Hammer? This last seems plain wrong — he's old enough to call her daughter, even granddaughter. She could call him Erastus. He would allow such familiarity, might even welcome it, but the name repels her, so coarse it threatens to abrade the tongue. Which leaves one choice — the word she uses sparingly, when she can't help but address him. Husband.

"Eudora," he says again, "see what I've brought you this fine night."

He draws his horse up closer than he ought to, its breath steaming her crown. Ink stands higher than sixteen hands. Dorrie ducks beneath her massive black neck, passing Hammer's boot hooked in its iron to stand where the head of the white body hangs. Its face is long, pouring down into an abrupt darkness of nose. Blood behind the left ear and all down the neck, covering the withers like a shawl.

"It'll be a job to clean," she says.

Hammer twists in his saddle. "Where would you have me shoot it, the tip of the tail?"

She doesn't answer, instead reaching up to push her fingers deep into a clean patch of the animal's ruff. As a rule, fur provides a temporary refuge for her afflicted hands. Not tonight. The plush of the white wolf's coat awakens a crackling discomfort beyond the usual burn. She grabs her hand back, dropping her eyes.

"Stand back now," Hammer tells the top of her head, and she does so numbly, thrusting both hands deep into the front pocket of her smock.

He dismounts, the mare's height causing him to land hard and sway on his heels. Reaching out to cup the she-wolf's chin, he thumbs her upper lip back to reveal a yellowed fang. "Pretty thing, ain't she?"

Dorrie nods.

The Tracker says nothing, busy at the bay's side, quietly loosing knots. His hands work fluidly in the corner of Dorrie's eye, and she turns in time to watch him slide a second, larger wolf from the pack horse's back. Drawing it by the forepaws over one shoulder, he twists, squatting slightly to assume its grey bulk. The bay stands unmoving, despite the stink of predator jangling ancient bells in its brain.

The Tracker sways a little on the first step, then finds his balance and proceeds, Dorrie taking sharp, skipping steps before him to open wide the high barn door. Once inside, he bows over her workbench, ducks his head and lets the animal roll from his shoulders. As he straightens and backs away, Dorrie moves in close.

Standing over the wolf, she feels an unfamiliar fluttering beneath her rib cage. She holds her breath a moment before reaching out to lift its tail. A male — no surprise there, given Hammer's preference for family sets.

As though privy to her thoughts, the Tracker returns with the second load clutched to his chest. Dorrie can make out multiple ears, paws, a couple of tails. This time he opens his arms as he bows over the bench, allowing the bundle to separate into three pups — two the size of well-fed cats, the third smaller, an iron-grey runt.

Hammer enters now, staggering under the mother's weight. He lurches toward them, barely in control of his load, but when the Tracker steps forward to help, he lets out a grunt, the meaning of which is clear. The Paiute nods, hands at his sides. A few steps more and Hammer crashes against the workbench, the white wolf slithering from his shoulders to fall across mate and young. For a moment no one speaks — Hammer breathless, leaning on his knuckles, Dorrie standing to one side of him and slightly behind, the Tracker retreating to his station by the door.

They are alone together, the three of them, and they are not.

Behind them the collection looms. Tiers of straw bales ascend the western wall, each of them crowded with Dorrie's creations. Hunter lies alongside hunted — fox and pocket mouse, lynx and grouse, mountain lion and deer. She can feel them there, every beast, every bird.

Hammer draws himself up, holding a fist to his running nose. The chemicals of Dorrie's trade have troubled him from the beginning. After three years of marriage and countless specimens preserved, the very air of her workshop is a poison to him. Already his eyes are glassy with tears. "Get on with it, will you."

She reaches past him to where her measuring cord hangs on its hook. Unwinding its coils, she can hear him begin to wheeze. She holds one end firmly over the dark sponge of the she-wolf's nose and lays the cord down over skull and withers, following the spine to its base. Her hands hum. Her stomach jumps. She takes the tail's length next, root to tip, pinching the cord to keep both measurements true, then laying it over the inch marks etched along the workbench. Stepping to the small table where her lamp sits flickering, she takes up a stubby pencil and sets the information down — first on a clean page of her notebook, then again on a scrap of paper Hammer can take with him back to the house.

Female, she writes in her tight, careful hand. Head and body 51 inches together. Tail 15½.

* * *

Wolves. Of all the cursed creatures to drag home.

Ursula Hammer shakes her head, her long white-blonde plait tugging where she's trapped it between pillow and spine. First among four wives, she sits up tall in her bed, dipping her needle through a circle of linen stretched taut. For every stitch the eye records there exists a shadow, the underwork that goes on where only the fingers can see. They may be large and blunt as any man's, but Ursula's hands are equal to the most delicate of work. She sinks her black thread quickly, giving each loop a little jerk as she brings the last leg of a W to a close.

Wolves. Isn't that just like the man. Four days gone and not even any meat to show for it. The pelts will be fine enough — even looking down from the nursery window, Ursula marked the white one's gleam — but what did that signify when Hammer will neither sell them nor allow any member of his family the benefit of their warmth. Every kill he makes goes straight to the fourth wife. He got the better of Ursula all right, the day he brought that one home.

Imagine sleeping all the daylight hours the Lord sends, then rising to rattle through night after night in that old mud-walled barn. There was a time when Ursula's cows kept the space sweet and warm, but Sister Eudora is alone out there summer and winter alike, save for a host of lifeless beasts. Ursula shudders. She might almost know a moment's pity for the wretched creature, if only Eudora didn't make more work for her. If only she ever did a stick of work around the place herself.

O, Ursula begins now, a slanted, ropy circle, two-thirds the W's height. For a moment she imagines abandoning the text she's chosen, and stitching out Wolves instead. Then a sobering thought. Hadn't they called them wolf hunts? A Gentile term for a series of Gentile crimes — burnings, lootings, killings, a year of them in the wake of Brother Joseph's death. His persecutors once again driving the Saints from their homes.

It's an old story, more than two decades now, but the rage remains vital, a systemic force. Ursula jabs herself with the needle, sucks the bright sprout of blood. It wasn't enough that they'd goaded us from Ohio to Missouri, from Missouri to Illinois. They had to murder our Prophet. They had to take Nauvoo, our beautiful city, too.

The night a trio of unbelievers came riding, Ursula did as her husband directed and ran for the woods. She took cover in a half-rotten log — a hidey-hole rife with the tickle of spiders, pungent with the threat of bear. When, after what felt like hours, Hammer finally came for her, she emerged to find her house burnt to the ground. At least he hadn't let them get away. He said nothing of it, but she wasn't such a fool as to overlook drag trails in the dust of the smoking yard, charred bones in the blackened wreckage she insisted on sifting through. Her husband was putting his gun to good use in those days.

Ursula draws another stitch, the thread pulling true, smoother and more lustrous than any she might hope to purchase in town. There's no denying the calibre of Sister Ruth's silk — a gift first given when the two women were good and used to one another, having shared house and husband for some half-dozen years.

She ties off the topknot of the o, lays down her needle and takes up the Book of Mormon from where it lies on the bedside table. Parting it at the purple ribbon's mark, she rereads the passage, making certain she has it right.

Wo unto those —"those," not "them." It's as well she checked. Her knowledge of Scripture is formidable — more than once she's mentally corrected the Bishop of the ward during Sunday Meeting — yet it wouldn't do to let pride be her ruler and chance setting Holy Writ down wrong.

Ursula closes her eyes. For an instant she sees the words laid out as they shall be, three by three.

Wo unto those that worship idols, for the devil of all devils delighteth in them.

It's then that she hears him, cracking the kitchen door beneath her bed, pausing to remove his jacket and hat then wrestle free of his boots. Several minutes pass while she listens to him rooting around in her larder. She'll be cleaning up after him in the morning, wiping grease from the banister, sweeping crumbs from the stairs where, soon enough, he'll ascend.

Not yet, though. First, he'll pass through the front hall to the dining room. Ursula nods — a smug, chin-tucking bob — as the floorboards creak out this very pattern beneath her. As the dining room lies at the far end of the house, she has to strain to make out the following string of sounds — the chuck of the key in the sideboard's only locking door, the thwack of his book meeting table, the glassy grind of his ink jar coming to rest at its side.

Ursula opens her eyes. She'd make a fine hunter herself, her senses are so very keen. She has the steady hands of a hunter, too, the right one starting up again now, pushing down into the u. She must take care to keep its walls straight. Once, distracted by the unholy din Hammer and Sister Thankful were making two doors down, she worked an n off-kilter and had to prick it out.

Now comes the distant scuff and scrape of Hammer dragging a chair out to sit. And not just any chair. Ursula smiles to hear it — not with pleasure, but with a species of bleak satisfaction, a keeping of strict accounts.

* * *

Opening to a fresh page in his kill book, Erastus Hammer writes, 13th of May 1867. Wolves. Full set taken on a stone apron outside the den. High ground. Stream running below. Took the mother first — all white — single ball to the skull behind the ear. Tolerably clean.

He blinks, his eyes still watery.

Clubbed the pups — 3 — pelts perfect. Scarcely done when the father cast in his lot with the rest. Played upon me from the ridge at my back. Came flying from above and behind. Such a weight as would knock a man flat never to rise only a pebble's clatter gave him away. Swung up the barrel and spun to find him looking very sour at me mid air. Got a shot off on him. Used him up in one. Might still have taken me down with him only I stepped lively aside.

Erastus sits — as he always does when no eyes are upon him — not at the head of the table but at its tail. Ursula's chair. It's as close as he's come to touching her backside in years. Lord, the shock of it, bare against his palms that first time, hard as a man's thigh but infinitely smoother. Smooth and hard and cool.

His forearms lie on either side of the splayed kill book, dirty with curling black hairs, marked all over with the scars of a settler's life. His blue-eyed wife brings her elbows to rest here thrice daily, her pale arms knotted but somehow unmarred, longer than his own by half. How long now since he lined them up side by side in their bed, marvelling at her white and flawless size?

He screws his eyes shut a moment, then forces them to focus on the page. Reading over what he's written, he finds it wanting a line or two. He considers a moment, nods and wets his nib.

A fine weight of wolves. Not a dry hair on the horses by the time we made home.

Good enough. He fishes out the list of figures in Eudora's cramped, back-slanting hand. Hard to believe the tricks those scabby fingers know.

Was it providence, his overhearing the Burr woman's proud talk in Cedar City that day? He could scarcely help it, the way she was bleating on to the woman behind the counter. She's so clever, my Dorrie. Just last week she made up a jaybird, dead one day, resurrected the next! Erastus thought he'd travelled the more than two hundred miles south to Utah's Dixie to see about an exceptional mare, but in that moment the true purpose of his journey came clear. He lurked at the back of the store, fingering shirt cuffs and shoe leather, until she was gone. Then made his way to the counter, took out his purse and inquired as to where the good woman lived.

Driving out to the scrappy patch the Burrs called a farm, Erastus nurtured bright visions of every creature he'd ever killed. He pictured them arranged about his home — owls like vases, a grizzly like a gleaming desk — pretending for the moment that Ursula would stand for a wilderness dragged indoors. He imagined visitors stooping to examine teeth, or rising on tiptoe to marvel at claws, forgetting he was a man without the burden of friends.

Upon drawing into the dusty yard, he spotted the blur of a girl's figure through the open door of a shed. It was all he could do to keep his stride unhurried, matching it to that of her father, a man who ran like a slave to meet him then scuffed along babbling at his side.

At length Erastus drew near enough to get a look at her face. It gave him no pleasure — a shock of pleasure's opposite, in fact — but it wasn't her face he'd come to see. Her hands were a mess, nails chewed down, backs nicked, more than one narrow knuckle split. They were at work on a cottontail, divesting it of flesh and bone. The inner body was a headless, sinewy thing — plain meat. The pelt, on the other hand — face and feet and tail still attached — was all promise, a vessel to be filled. Those hands held secrets. He would have them, and the rest of her too.

Having copied the list of weights and measures, Erastus blots the page. A fragmentary inversion of his story appears on the blotting paper. He stares at it for a long moment before folding shut the book.

* * *

Not long now. She can hear him — no longer scribbling, sitting still a moment, directly below. Of course she can hear him. She's down on her knees, ear to water glass, glass to floor. A woman has a right to keep track of her man.

He stands, the chair scraping out behind him. Why does he sit in the first wife's chair rather than his own? Because he knows the witch wouldn't like it if she knew? Or because it's closer to the sideboard, the book he keeps locked away?

She hears the snick of the sideboard door. The chair shoved forward again. Any minute now.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Effigy"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Alissa York.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Effigy: Mormons. Polygamy. Taxidermy. Love. 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
DanaBurgess on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While cruising the stacks at the local library, I ran across 'Effigy' by Alissa York. I was immediately drawn to the cover and pleased to see it was a Giller Prize finalist. Historical fiction - inspired by the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857; and polygamy - very interesting subject; throw in a little weirdness with the fourth wife who spends all of her time in the barn practicing the art of taxidermy and it all should add up to a compelling read. (For those of you who commented on my Tuesday Teaser, it was a scene where Dorrie is preparing a wolf family for stuffing)Sadly, I felt a little let down after reading this novel. Maybe I had built it up too much in my mind but I found it lacking. I didn't ever get close enough to the characters to care much about their experiences. Their personalities were all just too bizarre, which made it hard to think of the characters as real. There was also a lot of jumping around in the story and that tends to lose me as a reader unless there are definite separations - like different font or chapter titles that explain who is speaking. I always felt like I was finally drawn into one plot line when I was, unexpectedly tossed into another.All in all Ms York's 'Effigy' is a dark portrayal of a strange time - maybe just a little too dark and strange.
keywestnan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a lovely novel, set on a Mormon ranch in Utah in 1867 -- with numerous flashbacks giving us the background on the interesting, complicated characters. The center is the family of Erastus Hammer, a horse dealer and avid hunter who is losing his vision. He has four wives, the youngest of whom he married for her taxidermy skills. Besides Erastus and his wives, we get the stories of his oldest son, his Native American employee (called Tracker) whom Hammer pays to shoot the prey he wants but can no longer sight (although Hammer still claims credit), and his new farmhand, a doublejointed young man who has worked as a contortionist and stable boy. There's a lot going on, a lot of it tracing back to the Mountain Meadows Massacre (an actual historical event) but the story unfolds beautifully.