The hunger for transcendence -- specifically the American variety -- is the subject of David Guterson's new novel Our Lady of the Forest. Guterson, a gentle novelist who hails from Seattle and sets his stories in the vast, wet Northwest, places his human mysteries against an unforgiving landscape, emphasizing the internal longings that drive us forward through the wilderness.
Winner of the 1995 Pen/Faulkner Award for Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson is poised for another best seller with this, his third novel. And Our Lady of the Forest will likely find a ready audience because of its subject matter -- a sighting of the Virgin Mary by a young girl.
Ann Holmes, 16 years old and a runaway, is a tragically flawed vessel for a Marian apparition. Born to a young teen-age mother, Ann grows up with little security and is repeatedly raped by her mother's boyfriend. By the time she turns 16 and can drive away from home, she already has had an abortion, has dealt with venereal disease, is chronically asthmatic, and considers herself ruined.
A devoted Catholic who ingests hallucinogenic mushrooms, lives on candy bars and sustains herself with prayer, Ann settles into a campground outside a forest where she picks mushrooms for a living. On one venture into the woods, she has an ecstatic encounter with the Blessed Virgin, or at least she thinks she does. The next day, several women go with her into the forest, one of them the mother of a local girl who disappeared and was never found. The Virgin, says Ann, has told her that the girl is in heaven and that her body will soon be found. When that prophecy is fulfilled the next day, a flock of followers pops up in this desolate place quicker than you can say "Hail Mary."
The parish priest, Father Collins, who struggles with his own demons, including a barely containable lust for the young visionary; a cynical hanger-on named Carolyn who figures to cash in on the Mary sighting; and a depressed former logger named Tom Cross populate the book and surround Ann, each wavering between doubt and belief with a stronger tendency toward doubt. When the Catholic Church sends a bishop to discern for the church whether this apparition is a divine event or merely the delusion of a troubled young mind, the reader is asked to weigh in on the side of faith or realism. Do miracles really happen, Our Lady of the Forest asks, or are they simply the result of human circumstance propelled by hope?
Guterson is great at fleshing out this economically depressed logging town and tapping into the motivations of the people who live there. The confessions of Father Collins' parishioners will give you an idea of the terrain: "I got drunk and shoved my daughter against a wall when I caught her with a six-pack. I ripped off the clinic for these pills I like. ... I siphoned gas because I didn't have none and didn't leave a note or nothing. ... I rammed a Forest Service gate last night. ... I was out elk hunting with no success and out of sheer frustration I guess it was I shot somebody's cat."
Guterson's descriptive prose is rich and the story, peppered with humor, remains compelling throughout, avoiding any hint of piousness while venturing into the mystic.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Our Lady of the Forest
By David Guterson
(Alfred A. Knopf: New York)