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'Our Lady' captivates the pen of an agnostic

October 20, 2003|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — David Guterson can't keep his eyes off the fruit bowl. "Are those figs?" he asks, poking into the crystal dish in his room at the Four Seasons. He's not hungry, just curious. "I'm actually fascinated with everyone and everything," he says. "I really am."

He's even worse in a bookstore, pulling stuff off shelves at random, willing to read anything that catches his fancy. Several years ago, for example, he chanced upon a tome about a French peasant girl who claimed in the 19th century that the Virgin Mary was appearing to her at Lourdes.

Guterson, whose first novel was the blockbuster "Snow Falling on Cedars," then started reading about other Marian apparitions, including several reported in the U.S. in recent decades. He discerned a pattern: In troubled times, a poor, young girl beholds a vision, doubts it, but is eventually compelled to speak about what she sees, inspiring pilgrimages by the faithful and eventually forcing the church to come to grips with the event.

"American apparitions had this carnival atmosphere and this tawdry capitalism attached to them," Guterson says. "I got interested in that particular American nexus between the divine and the tawdry."

The result is "Our Lady of the Forest," Guterson's new novel, the story of an elfin runaway in a dying timber town in the Pacific Northwest who goes mushroom picking and winds up coming back from the woods with instructions from the Virgin Mary to build her a shrine in the forest.

"Ann," Guterson writes of his unlikely heroine, "was diminutive, sparrow-boned, and when she covered her head with her sweatshirt hood it was easy to mistake her for a boy of 12, fair-skinned and dreamy. She often wheezed asthmatically, sneezed feebly, blew her nose and coughed against her fist or palm. On most mornings her jeans were wet with the rain or dew transferred from the fronds of ferns and her hands looked pink and raw.... Those who saw her in the woods that fall ... were struck by her inconsequence and by the wariness of her eyes in shadow underneath the drawn hood."

Reviewers have been struck by the book's rich array of characters -- doubters, believers and crass exploiters -- who troop to the woods with Ann and turn her vision into a media event.

A review in The Times said, "His gripping, darkly comic new novel marks an expansion of his vision, a deepening exploration of the richly layered realm of the Pacific Northwest that Guterson has come to own as surely as William Faulkner did his Yoknapatawpha County."

"Panoramic, psychologically dense," added Publishers Weekly. "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."

Raised in a secular Jewish household, Guterson professes no faith but seems fascinated by the attempts of others to integrate spirituality into their lives.

"These stories tied into something deeper that I had been thinking about," he says. "As a sort of conventional American secular humanist, a modern-day agnostic, I was dissatisfied with God the Father."

Guterson then launches into a long explication of agnosticism, which boils down to the idea that people really want to believe in a holy mother.

"The cult of the Virgin Mary," he says, "is this instinctive upwelling, this surge of need on the part of ordinary human beings to have something feminine in the divine that's not provided for in these patriarchal religions."

The novelist did a lot of research into Catholicism but didn't find anything to believe in.

"I wouldn't say I arrived at any answers, but the questions got deeper and richer for me."

Guterson would not seem like the type to be troubled with existential angst. At 47, he looks a decade younger, his hair dark and thick.

His father was a well-known defense attorney in Seattle, where Guterson was born. He's been married to the same woman for more than half his life. He lives on woodsy Bainbridge Island, outside of Seattle. Three of his children are enrolled at the University of Washington. The fourth goes to a Waldorf school.

"Existential questions don't keep me up at night," Guterson says. "I'm not tortured. Dostoyevsky was tortured. But I spend a considerable amount of time very aware of existential questions. I don't easily escape them."

During his junior year at the University of Washington, Guterson signed up for a creative writing class and became hooked on making up stories.

"I was totally fixated and absorbed," he says. "I felt such a love that I lived and breathed it; I was desperate to write every day; I needed it just to feel good about life."

He earned a master's in creative writing and tried various jobs -- selling firewood, working for the Forest Service -- and eventually became a high school English teacher on Bainbridge Island. Always, he wrote.

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