“Effigy” is by Canadian author Alissa York. The novel is about a well-known atrocity in the American Southwest, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It won’t get Mitt Romney any votes, nor are you likely to be told the story by a faithful Mormon. Briefly, the incident involves Indians and Mormons disguised as Indians attacking an emigrant wagon trail, murdering all but the small children, and looting the belongings. But this is not a history story (that’s been done): rather it is a reflection, a flight of fancy, and an occasion for poetic language describing intense scenes. The central character is a little girl who is rescued (though the rescue is not a particularly benign one in such a harsh world) and who grows up to be a taxidermist, thus producing the “effigies” of the title.
York’s reference bibliography is almost entirely American, though she started from an account of a B.C. Mormon community. She repeatedly draws on an old-fashioned guide to taxidermy methods. (These methods are no longer used and she occasionally skips a few steps, like tanning.) The only admirable full-grown male is not the Pater Familias who takes her as his fourth wife so she can “resurrect” his kills, but rather the Alpha wolf of a small family Dorrie is supposed to mount. He has survived but the female and cubs have become a blood sacrifice among many others.
The second epigram -- about effigies -- is from Sylvia Plath: “How I would like to believe in tenderness--/ the face of the effigy, gentled by candles,/Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.” “Bending” becomes “Bendy,” a contortionist and horse whisperer whose arrival sets the domestic plot in motion long after the massacre and who finally gives Dorrie her tenderness.
It is said that there are two kinds of literature these days: those that rely on plot and those that are an occasion for extraordinary language. This is clearly the latter. If you go to York’s website, www.elissayork.com, you’ll find examples. She works in an imagistic way, free-associating, relying on fine-grained senses to bring the bizaare alive. I have never before read a description of how to “mount” a silkworm. (The second wife of this man raises silk worms.) Sometimes she misses: a wolf’s nose is not “mushy” but leathery, just like a dog’s nose.
The 37-year-old author, who was born in Athabasca, Alberta, has lived all over Canada. From her home in Toronto, where she moved from Winnipeg two years ago, York says her goal is to provoke strong emotional reactions in her readers. "I want people to really feel a lot. It's not my goal to just make people think. I want them to think, but I want them, more than anything, to feel." (from a review in the Calgary Herald)
Critics compare her prose to Cormac McCarthy’s: there she is, writing about historic atrocities south of the border, weaving her suffering, barely surviving characters through events, using language that is old-fashioned, poetic, dripping with blood. The story is woven in sections as it follows different characters. There are four wives: the matriarch who was devoted to Brigham Young; the English girl who knows one thing, to raise silk; the stage discard who is proficient at erotics, right down to using an effective abortifacient so she’s never out of action; and the massacre survivor taxidermist who relates the massacre with a dreaming crow’s eye view. A Paiute Indian lends his skills to the Patriarch, Erastus Hammer, who is so near-sighted that the Indian, “Tracker,” must do his shooting for him, maintaining the fiction that Hammer is a crack shot. Hammer’s son, Lal, is stupid, unlike his conniving father.
The inevitable rebellion comes about when Lal begins to sleep with the former actress while yearning for the silk-maker. At the same time Tracker forms an alliance with the wolf. “Bendy” gentles the taxidermy wife, whose adopted mother provides the actual history in letters written as she dies. A person could get symbolic meanings out of all this, but as York herself says, no two people ever see it the same way. The story is dense, doubling back, moving slowly, recovering personal histories, sketching vignettes. But it rewards meditation, not just about religiously empowered imitations of Jehovah, but also about the relationships among women and the lives of animals. It is the CONTEXT of the powerful men that we don’t usually get in Westerns.
The formal “myth” of the West is that it was as empty a space as the moon, that heroic men came and built homes where they sheltered families, the beginning of patriotism and culture. In York’s version the anti-heroes come to a pre-existing land where they take what they want from the indigenous, the weak, the female, and the unwary newcomers. Hammer’s horse business is based on the animals he acquired at the massacre, and his business goes downhill because he does not take proper care of the animals. His first wife runs the dairy and the children; the second wife produces the silk and the pregnancies; the third wife entertains him in her fanciful and sterile way; the fourth wife is a resurrection artist who only produces simulacra of animals he needs Tracker to shoot. He is a contemptible and phony creature.
Not that York makes a big fuss about pointing it out. She assumes we can see for ourselves. Her task is to present evidence as vividly and in as much researched detail as she can. Her gift is the language that makes this possible as well as endurable. It’s interesting to speculate on what Wallace Stegner would think of this book -- I suspect he would dislike the writing but admire the writer, though she doesn’t seem so ladylike. I wonder what Stegner thought of Zane Grey -- whom I speculate would love both York's writing and York. Of course, each man loved the West.