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The miracle of the mushroom picker

Our Lady of the Forest A Novel David Guterson Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $25.95

September 28, 2003|Jane Ciabattari | Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire" and a contributing editor to Parade magazine.

"Our Lady of the Forest" is another virtuoso performance from David Guterson, whose first novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars," won the 1994 PEN/Faulkner Award. 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. Like Faulkner and the magnificent August Wilson, whose cycle of plays chronicles the African American community in Pittsburgh, Guterson sings the song of place with perfect pitch.

Guterson wrote eloquently of a small salmon fishing community on a mythical island not unlike his home base, Bainbridge Island, in "Snow Falling on Cedars," a courtroom drama with undertones of unrequited love, wartime loss and postwar racial bias. He shifted focus to eastern Washington, the high desert and apple-growing area of the Columbia Basin, in his spare second novel, "East of the Mountains," about a physician with a fatal cancer who decides to fake a hunting accident.

In "Our Lady of the Forest," Guterson leads us into the still grandeur of the rain-drenched forest of northwest Washington, then unflinchingly dares us to examine the mysteries of faith and redemption. His uncanny sense of place is at work from the opening paragraph.

"The girl's errand in the forest that day was to gather chanterelle mushrooms in a bucket to sell in town at dusk. According to her own account and the accounts of others in the North Fork Campground who would later be questioned by the diocesan committee, by Father Collins of St. Joseph's of North Fork, by the bishop's representative, and by reporters covering the purported apparitions -- including tabloid journalists who treated the story like a visitation by Martians or the birth of a two-headed infant -- the girl left her camp before eight o'clock and walked alone into the woods. Setting out with no direction in mind, she crossed a maple bottom and a copse of alders, traversed a creek on a rotten log, then climbed a ridge into deep rain forest and began searching for mushrooms in earnest."

That day, in November 1999, Ann Holmes sees a ball of light with a human figure inside hovering just off the forest floor. She is frightened, and, thinking it might be "something from a science fiction movie, a UFO or a government experiment she wasn't supposed to know about," even the devil, she tries to ward it off with her rosary. She returns over the next six days and receives a series of apocalyptic visitations from the Virgin Mary, with instructions to build a chapel there in the forest.

"Why me? Who am I?" asks Ann, a homeless 16-year-old runaway with allergies, asthma and herpes from her mother's meth-addicted boyfriend, who has repeatedly raped her from the time she was 14. Tiny, wary, always dressed in a sweatshirt with the hood covering her head, she is "easy to mistake for a boy of twelve" and none too clean: "She smelled of wood smoke, leaves and rank clothes and had lived for a month in the North Fork Campground in a canvas tent by the river." She has never been baptized and has no formal religious experience, only what she has picked up in a Bible she found in a restroom and a stolen catechism.

If she seems an unlikely visionary, Bernadette Soubirous was 14, destitute, illiterate and sickly from a bout of cholera when she reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in 1858. Three humble shepherd children reported the visitations at Fatima in 1917.

It is clear that this is an otherworldly tale but one suffused with vivid physical details, including a melange of popular culture images and plenty of dope smoking, drinking, carousing and sex. Ann is plagued with a cold and fever that grow worse through her ordeal.

Ann's main confidant is Carolyn Greer, an opportunistic drifter whose point of view gives the novel its necessary cynic. Carolyn declares Ann insane but agrees to be her witness. "Ann in ecstasy, Carolyn thought, was something like a theatrical performance that even Ann believed in.... It wasn't deceit or sham or swindle. The more accurate word was probably delusion."

Father Collins, a priest on his first posting in a parish so poor he lives in a mildewed trailer court, is bedeviled by lust for Ann even as he tries to comprehend her experience and give her spiritual guidance. Watching her, he feels "spellbound and in the presence of something holy," but then regains his skepticism: "The priest felt certain that a literal interpretation ... was absurd and erroneous. He did not believe that Mary had descended from her blissful place at the right hand of God to speak to a mushroom picker. He did not give credence to apparitions, not even to the seven the Vatican had legitimized."

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