David Guterson's Our Lady of the Forest
navigates between the mystical and the cynical in its slowly paced telling of a Marian encounter in North Fork, Washington. The story opens in the North Fork campground among homeless mushroom pickers. The town is reeling from the loss of its logging industry, and its residents make their way by scavenging odd jobs and selling the produce of the forest. Living in the campground, 16-year-old Anne Holmes is a runaway asthmatic whose recent interest in Catholicism follows a period of petty thievery, drug use, and frequent masturbation (an interest that Guterson notes is shared by the town priest, Father Don Collins). While off on her rounds of mushrooming one morning, she encounters a bright light--the Virgin Mary, she believes. Soon, she has drawn a band of thousands as people flock to North Fork to witness the vision and be healed. But, through Carolyn Greer, a world-weary fellow-mushroom-picker who longs for nothing more than an extended vacation to "Cabo"-- readers learn that Anne actually sees nothing, or at least no one else shares the Marian apparition that gives Anne lofty commands each day.
At times Guterson lets his characters' pettiness, opportunism, and cynicism overrun the delicacy of Anne's world. Carolyn's vehement atheism and materialistic languor undermine what could have been a stronger counter-point to her spiritual friend. Even Father Collins, who struggles between fatherly compassion and sexual longing for the young visionary, is too full of self-loathing for readers to embrace him. Yet, the novel's exploration of Anne's abrupt and intense faith pierces the narrative and brings light to it. And as Anne's visions grow in intensity and her health begins to fail, one can't help but long for divine intervention on her behalf. --Patrick O'Kelley
From Publishers Weekly
When Ann Holmes starts having visions of the Virgin Mary, the bedraggled teen runaway becomes the last hope for the inhabitants of a dank, economically depressed logging town and the hordes of miracle-seekers who descend on it. In this panoramic, psychologically dense novel, she also becomes a symbol of the intimate intertwining of the sacred and the profane in American life. Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars; East of the Mountains), tells the story from the viewpoint of four lost souls groping for redemption: Ann; Carolyn, an aging, overeducated, cynical drifter who takes Ann under her wing to profit from her growing fame; a local priest wrestling with his doubts about, and lust for, the visionary; and a tormented ex-logger trying to atone for the accident that paralyzed his son. Guterson's evocative prose, pithy dialogue and piercing insights cut through the fog of sin and guilt that shadows these wounded characters like the overcast sky of the Pacific Northwest. And as Ann's visions stimulate a tourism boom and draw the attention of media vultures and a skeptical Catholic Church, Guterson explores larger social themes-the demise of blue-collar America; the ironic symbiosis of religious devotion and commercial exploitation; the replacement of faith in God by faith in psychopharmacology; and the link between the exaltation of women's saintliness and the reality of women's degradation. Searching for the miraculous in the mundane, this ambitious and satisfying work builds vivid characters and trenchant storytelling into a serious and compassionate look at the moral quandaries of modern life.
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