National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Spring Books
Issue Date:  February 6, 2004

By David Guterson
Knopf, 318 pages, $25.95
Imagining an American apparition

Reviewed by ANTONIA RYAN

In Our Lady of the Forest, his third novel, David Guterson explores what the Marian apparitions at Lourdes might have been like if they had happened in America at the turn of the 21stcentury. Some of the same questions arise: Is the seer telling the truth? Is she crazy? Why would Mary appear to a lowly “undesirable”? And how do the faithful react to news that someone is claiming to speak for God’s mother?

Ann Holmes, Guterson’s visionary, lives in a campground and makes her living gathering mushrooms in the forest near the destitute logging town of North Fork, Wash. She is a teenage runaway with a history of drug use. She suffers from constant allergies. She reads from her catechism and prays the rosary, but has never been baptized. (The diocesan investigator later asks Ann, “You’re not a Catholic? What are you then?” “Nothing I guess,” she says. “I’ve never gone to church, Father. I’ve never been religious until lately.”)

While out on a mushroom-gathering foray, Ann experiences her first apparition of the Virgin Mary. Ann goes for guidance to the local priest, Fr. Donald Collins, the young pastor to the Catholic church in North Fork. He struggles with thoughts of desire for the clear-faced, sickly visionary and cannot decide whether to believe her story. Soon the diocese hears of the situation and sends its expert to investigate the truth of Ann’s messages from heaven. Meanwhile, all Ann cares about is building a church to Our Lady.

Early on, Ann acquires a spokeswoman, Carolyn Greer, a cynical woman who also lives in the campground and seems more interested in the money they are making from pilgrims’ donations than in Mary’s message about an impending world judgment. As Ann’s visions continue, the North Fork Campground fills up with seekers -- and also with entrepreneurs selling religious statues and concessions to the crowds.

Guterson describes the results of the pilgrims’ devotion after only a few days: “Carolyn Greer had marked the apparition site with long tendrils of pink flagging, but already it had been indicated further with a plastic crucifix propped against a tree, with votive candles, medals, chaplets, plastic water bottles, an Immaculate Heart of Mary figurine, a display of carefully separated orange segments, a handkerchief cradling a handful of walnuts, a tin backpacker’s drinking cup filled with Skittles, everything set in a bed of plucked ferns so that the spot looked like a holy site for animists recently proselytized.”

Into this mix is woven the story of Tom Cross, a hate-filled former logger who attends the local Catholic church. Tom’s life has fallen apart. His son is a quadriplegic -- a result of a logging accident for which Tom’s own cruelty is responsible. As the pilgrims increase from a handful to thousands, and some claim to have experienced healing miracles after Ann’s prayers, Tom becomes more curious about whether this seer can cure his son.

Our Lady of the Forest spends a lot of time inside its characters’ heads. Sometimes characters reminisce about their pasts, or we follow their streams of consciousness as they muse on present events, or we listen as they overhear the free-association conversations of nearby tourists. Some of this helps to fill in characters’ histories or establish their characters. However, Guterson often dwells on tangents for too long and winds away from the main narrative of the Marian revelations.

Guterson describes most of Ann’s visions from the perspective of those outside, observing her in her ecstasies. Ann herself has almost no personality; before she began seeing the Virgin Mary, she was plain and reclusive, and afterward she seems like little more than a vessel for the messages of Our Lady.

As with his well-received Snow Falling on Cedars, in Our Lady of the Forest Guterson gives beautiful descriptions of the Pacific Northwest landscape. The landscape, in fact, is a much more fully realized character than any of the people in the book, who all seem to be meek and unimportant in the face of the mist and the woods:

“Some of the pilgrims carried lit candles, but these went out immediately. They walked and sang God in His Holy Dwelling and Let Us Go Rejoicing. The forest, though, deadened their voices. Their hymns drifted off and were lost in the trees. At the threshold of the church they halted as one and were further soaked and seized with uncertainty. Something was happening at the front of the crowd but who, really, could tell what it was?”

Perhaps we can never know the truth in the face of such enormity and mystery, the vastness of the landscape seems to say. We are too small to understand the workings of God.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004

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