By David Guterson
Knopf, 323 pp., $25.95
A week is all it takes for Ann Holmes to go from lonely, asthmatic, 16-year-old mushroom picker to possible saint in David Guterson's new novel, Our Lady of the Forest.
But is Ann, from November 10 to November 16, 1999, the visionary she claims to be, the sole witness to multiple sightings of the Virgin Mary in the woods outside the unlucky lumber town of North Fork, Washington? She certainly thinks so. Is Ann, ridder of one woman's warts and cigarette habit and various other claims to instant medical cure, a miracle-worker by means of Mary? The followers who descend on North Fork in no time and in big numbers certainly believe so. Is Ann, in this novel's climactic scene, a martyr to the faith? The pilgrims waiting to enter Our Lady of the Forest Church a year after the Mother of God asks Ann to have that church built certainly behave so. And is Ann a figure to be venerated? Is she a 21st-century Bernadette of Lourdes, a Lucia dos Santos of FÝtima? Or is she a lost soul from Oregon, a victim of child sexual abuse, a serious allergy sufferer with a fevered brain, high on psilocybin, dosed up on Phenathol, and totally on her own and halfway out of her mind? Her relics say something:
Two baby teeth (stained yellow by time and the size of popcorn kernels) and a lock of hair (wrong color, wrong texture) were obtained from Ann's grandfather, Melvin, an independent trucker, for $3,500. A dime-store necklace (with crucifix) and a swatch of dingy sweatshirt cotton were "clandestinely purchased from an 'unnamed but entirely reliable source who had penetrated the county coroner's office.'" A shard of bone was sifted out of Ann's cremated remains after her absentee mother tossed them near Toketie Falls, on the road to Crater Lake.
Father Donald Collins, a "Newtonian" who used to have the hots for Ann and a cleric who wants to "reform" the church, is the parish priest in charge of Our Lady of the Forest dedication, and it's hard to tell what the hell he believes anymore, because that bone fragment could just as well belong to a deer, what's the difference? Carolyn Greer, a "Darwinist" and deadbeat, is the former trailer-camp neighbor who guided Ann's rise to holy heroine. Greer's just back from a year in Mexico, where she spent some time stoned on pot and drunk on margaritas thanks to the donations of pilgrims and no thanks to a plastic surgeon, who couldn't do a thing with the cellulite that's ruined her looks. Tom Cross, a dangerous hothead and former logger tortured by the thought that he engineered his own son's broken neck, is a server at that church ceremony, and a less likely acolyte you'd be hard-pressed to find. And Father Butler? He's the bishop's representative who was called in to discern whether this vision business was divinely inspired or diabolical in origin, a real pre-Vatican Two hardhead. This dedication day, Butler's nowhere to be found, his verdict on Ann arrived at a year before: a "dope-smoking runaway, period," case closed.
Except in the case of Ann's ability to locate the body of a girl long-missing in the woods and the preternatural, elevated diction that overtakes her whenever she reports the Virgin's instructions to assembled onlookers. Except in the case of Father Collins, whose ministry has been rechanneled to accept the "monotony of sacrifice." Except in the case of Carolyn Greer, who confesses her unholy role in all this. Except, especially, in the case of Tom Cross, a most unhappy "feller" of trees and ruiner of lives, a trigger-tempered husband under a restraining order and a devil at the cutting edge of damnation and redemption, an unmaker of his own peace of mind and others' and the one person we've no reason to pull for but do. These four, then, from among a large cast of worshipers, profiteers, law enforcers, doubters, and soul-searchers -- all of whom Guterson realizes brilliantly, all of whom Guterson situates believably in the dank Northwest, its soaked landscape and mildewed bedrooms and barrooms.
Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars was one thing. Our Lady of the Forest is another -- a major achievement: a profound meditation on good and evil, fathers and sons, faith and reason, mystery and truth, and heaven, help us.