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Fiction Historical


by (author) Alissa York

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Dec 2007
Historical, Literary, Animals
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Dec 2007
    List Price

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A stunning novel of loss, memory, despair and deliverance by one of Canada’s best young fiction writers, set on a Mormon ranch in nineteenth-century Utah.

Dorrie, a shock-pale child with a mass of untameable black hair, cannot recall anything of her life before she recovered from an illness at seven. A solitary child, she spends her spare time learning the art of taxidermy, completely fascinated by the act of bringing new and eternal life to the bodies of the dead. At fourteen, her parents marry her off to Erastus Hammer, a polygamous horse breeder and renowned hunter, who does not want to bed her. The role he has in mind for his fourth and youngest wife is creator of trophies of his most impressive kills, an urgent desire in him as he is slowly going blind. Happy to be given this work, Dorrie secludes herself in her workshop, away from Mother Hammer’s watchful eyes and the rivalry between the elder wives.

But as the novel opens, Hammer has brought Dorrie his latest kills, a family of wolves, and for the first time in her short life she struggles with her craft, dreaming each night of crows and strange scenes of violence. The new hand, Bendy Drown, is the only one to see her dilemma and to offer her help, a dangerous game in a Mormon household. Outside, a lone wolf prowls the grounds looking for his lost pack, and his nighttime searching will unearth the tensions and secrets of this complicated and conflicted family.

Inspired by the real events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, Alissa York blends fact with fiction in a haunting story of a family separated by secrets and united by faith.

About the author

Alissa York has lived all over Canada and now makes her home in Winnipeg with her husband, writer / filmmaker / publisher Clive Holden. In 1999 her short fiction won the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award. Later that year Arbeiter Ring published Alissa's first collection of stories, Any Given Power, which won the Mary Scorer Award for the Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher, and was short-listed for the Danuta Gleed Award. Film rights to three connected stories from the collection have been optioned by Buffalo Gal Pictures. In 2001, Alissa won the John Hirsch Award for the Most Promising Manitoba Writer. Her novel Effigy was nominated in 2007 for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Alissa York's profile page


  • Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize

Excerpt: Effigy (by (author) Alissa York)

Utah Territory

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.”

Editorial Reviews

Finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize
Longlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award
National Bestseller

"A small masterpiece. . . . Exhilarating and genuinely fresh."
National Post

"York's writing is graphic and impressionistic, sharp-edged and sensual. Though both style and landscape at times bring to mind Annie Dillard and Cormac McCarthy, York's voice is very much her own." —Quill & Quire

"York's mesmerizing tale is rich in historical detail and driven by a cast of deftly drawn and perfectly memorable characters. . . . A wonderful book."
—Lori Lansens, author of The Girls

"Alissa York's Effigy is a historical fiction almost frighteningly real. Her creation of Erastus Hammer's four wives and complex household in frontier Utah is so precise and convincing, and allows the reader so entirely and readily inside, that the only uncertainty is how to get back to the present again. This is a rewarding read. Don't miss it." —Fred Stenson

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