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 t