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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 23) - "Effigy" by Alissa York

The penultimate day of my Book Advent Calendar brings me to “Y”.  (“X” was skipped because I know of no authors with a surname beginning with that letter.)  Today’s author is another of my Canadian choices.

Day 23:  Effigy by Alissa York
4 Stars
Set on a Mormon ranch in nineteenth-century Utah, and inspired by the real events of a massacre in 1857, this is a story of a polygamous family united by faith but separated by secrets.

Erastus Hammer, a horse breeder and hunter, has four wives:  Ursula, who rules the house with an iron hand; Ruth, who is obsessed with silkworms and bears the children whom Ursula claims as her own; Thankful, a former actress who provides Erastus with sexual pleasure; and Dorrie, a taxidermist.  Erastus is going blind so it is Dorrie’s role is to create trophies of his kills. 

Erastus is assisted by Tracker, his Indian guide who cannot bring himself to help Hammer kill a lone wolf who prowls the ranch looking for his lost pack which Erastus had killed earlier.  It is the nocturnal searching of this wolf that will unearth the secret tensions of this complex and conflicted family.

Dorrie becomes friends with Bendy Drown, a hand hired to work with the horses.  He used to be a contortionist and so acts as a model for Dorrie as he copies the stance of animals.  We learn about the background of Erastus, his wives, Tracker, and Bendy through flashbacks.

A backdrop to the events in the novel is the Mountain Meadows Massacre in which Mormons disguised as Indians attacked a wagon train of settlers.  Tracker was one of the Indians duped into taking part; Dorrie is a child survivor of the attack. 

There is an interesting point of view.  Dorrie dreams of a crow who describes the massacre and Dorrie’s escape, which she does not remember.  Dorrie’s “mother”, dying, writes letters to Dorrie describing how she was rescued.  Tracker gives Dorrie a gift:  a book of drawings done by her mother before she was killed.

There is a great deal of suspense throughout.  There are tensions among all the characters and as time passes, a collision course is inevitable.  What remains to be discovered is the nature and consequences of this event.

This book was a 2007 Giller Prize nominee, and it is definitely a good read.