David Guterson tackles lofty subjects in his novels. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS deals with the injustices done the Japanese-Americans living in the Northwest during World War II, while EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS analyzes a man's confrontation with terminal illness. His latest, OUR LADY OF THE FOREST, is the story of a teenage runaway girl who claims to see the Virgin Mary. Guterson researches his subjects like a bloodhound on the scent of a criminal. He uses a most unlikely subject to reveal messages to the contemporary faithful who come to hear her words.
Ann Holmes is sixteen, an itinerant runaway who gathers mushrooms in the woods near North Fork Campground, Washington. She is the daughter of an unmarried teenage mother who lives with a methamphetamine addict. By fourteen, Ann has been repeatedly raped by the addict and has aborted two fetuses. A severe asthmatic, she leaves her abusive background and forages for mushrooms, her sole source of income. She's small, skinny, has jagged cut hair and wears a hooded sweatshirt that shrouds her features. Carolyn Greer is a mushroom picker who lives in a van in the North Fork Campground and takes Ann under her wing.
Guterson's imagery gives his audience a clear sense of his setting, the aroma of fallen cedar needles a rich reminder of his successful first novel. Ann's occupation is appropriate for her daily sojourns deep into the forest, however unseemly for a girl hiding from the world. The tattered, wheezy child is reminiscent of the conduits for a holy message chosen in the first century A.D.
The first apparition comes when Ann brushes dirt from the gills of a mushroom. She notices a strange bright light that hovers between two trees, with the brilliance of a halogen light bulb. Frightened, she picks up her bucket and runs, says an Our Father and three Hail Marys, then finishes her rosary at lightning speed. Scared by the experience, she witnesses it again and sees a human figure that glides toward her. She races back to the campground and takes refuge in Carolyn's van. Greer is skeptical but agrees to accompany Ann back into the woods for another look. Ann alone sees the figure again, but Carolyn is witness to Ann's bodily movements and reaction to the apparition. Word spreads and local priest Father Donald Collins accompanies the women to document Ann's contact with the Holy Virgin.
Father Collins ministers to a dried-up logging community that cries for work. Tom Cross is a tortured former logger who is responsible for his son's paralysis. The man curses God but hungers for redemption and forgiveness from his family. When Ann's sightings of the Virgin become widespread topics of conversation, Tom hopes for his own redemption.
Commercialism enters when followers set up shop to sell trinkets, jewelry and Catholic memorabilia, and hover at the campground. Ann reports that the Virgin wants a church built in the forest and ministry commenced by the faithful. Church leaders scrutinize Ann's story with minute detail. Her frailty lies not within her faith but in the confines of her sickly physical body.
I was annoyed by Guterson's writing style, using no quotations for dialogue. If the subject had been more appealing, I might have been more accepting. The characters are interesting, but OUR LADY OF THE FOREST did not make me a Guterson fan. I much preferred his first novel.
Still, the story is told with passion and will lead to much discussion about holy apparitions within any faith. OUR LADY OF THE FOREST is an emotional look at revelation in a modern setting. Readers of many beliefs will be able to relate to the feelings that surface when religion is a vital part of life.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 22, 2011
Our Lady of the Forest