From the Novel Nine: Effigy by Alissa York

For June’s meeting, we read Effigy by Alissa York. This novel is an incredibly complex story inspired by the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, perpetrated on western-bound settlers by Mormons disguised as Paiute and Ute men, as well as some of the native men. In the novel, there is one survivor, a little girl, who is adopted by one of the Mormons who participated in the massacre.

The novel takes place ten years after the massacre and centres on a Mormon family — Erastus Hammer and his four wives: Ursula, who’s still in love with the late Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons; Ruth, an immigrant from London who just wants to raise silk worms and make silk thread; Thankful, a former actress who sees in Hammer a safe place; and young Dorrie, who has developed an obsession with taxidermy. Although she does not know it yet, Dorrie is the lone survivor of the massacre, something the reader discovers through her adoptive mother’s letters to Dorrie, which have remained unsent. Hammer’s interest in Dorrie is limited to her ability to preserve his kills. Once a skilled hunter, Hammer, because of failing eyesight, is now dependent on the Tracker, a Paiute man whose name the reader never learns. The Tracker also participated in the massacre, and in some ways, he is at the core of the novel. He feels a ‘sickness of soul’ over what he has done as well as the killing he continues to do for Hammer. There is also Bendy, a former rider in the Pony Express and the man Hammer hires to take care of his horses.

Although the subject matter is difficult — there is a great deal of violence to people and animals — some of us loved Effigy for the sheer inventiveness of language, intricacy of story, and fascinating character development; each character has a complex and interesting backstory. Others of us, however, found it difficult to engage with the novel, partly because of the dark subject matter, but also because they found the language and story inventive to the point of feeling contrived — all of which provided great fodder for discussion of a novel with an abundance of complex relationships but precious little love.

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