Set against the landscape of an economically ravaged logging town in Washington near a privately owned rain forest, David Guterson’s Our Lady of the Forest continues to demonstrate the author’s intimate connection with the American wilderness. The town of North Fork has “sawn down its adjoining forests with purposeful enthusiasm,” and now the only work unemployed loggers can get is at the local prison or the Punjabi-owned motel. Father Donald Collins, who runs the church, even has second thoughts about living and working here. The faithful remain few, and the jaded ex-loggers knock back beers and spout expletives during halftime.
Where East of the Mountains (1998), set in Eastern Washington, examines the personal crisis of a suicidal physician dying of cancer and Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) concerns tensions between people living on an island in Puget Sound, Our Lady of the Forest explores issues of faith, salvation, and redemption.
Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854) that he went to the woods “because [he] wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” In Guterson’s novel, those who live near his Washington State forest appear merely to exist. They are social dropouts, miscreants, and directionless itinerants with questionable motives. Nevertheless, there is something ethereal and compelling about Ann Holmes, frequently referred to as “the visionary.” Holmes ran away from home after suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s drug-addicted boyfriend. She fights a persistent flu, appearing even more withdrawn as she alone witnesses visions of the Virgin Mary, who urges the girl to build a forest church. Carolyn Greer, Ann’s friend and a sarcastic atheist, interprets her friend’s visitations as being like those of “the sleepwalker engaged in a conversation with nobody in the room. Like the dreamer who falls from bed at night in lieu of a dream-world death.” While Greer remains unconvinced, Ann’s visions initiate a charismatic movement, the likes of which no one in North Fork has seen before.
In a morally bankrupt town, the priest’s role is especially challenging. Husbands and wives keep secrets from each other, as each resident of this perpetually damp and forlorn place does from himself or herself. Father Collins lives in a trailer park, grappling with his corporeal desires like any man. When the visionary speaks with him about her first sighting, the priest notices that “she was slim, wet, and plainly ill, and she evoked in him both professional pity and a burst of sexual desire.”
Guterson provides for all his characters detailed backgrounds. In such skilled hands, these backgrounds become like skeletons, through and around which all the connective tissues, muscles, and skin of the characters grow. Father Collins’s domineering father whipped him “ten times on his bare backside, the number ten emblematic of order.” He smoked marijuana and made out with a girl on a boat cruise. Father Collins is not the quintessentially forbearing priest, nor does he readily embrace Holmes’s assertion about her visions, even though he secretly finds the waif attractive. When he is called upon to minister to Tom Cross, Junior, paralyzed and in a wheelchair, Collins can hardly bear to be in the boy’s company. Tom Cross, his cruel father, readily admits to Father Collins his responsibility for Junior’s paralysis. In a confessional scene, without quotation marks, Cross and Father Collins dialogue: “I caused it. But why would you do that? Cuz I hated his guts. You hated your son. I have a lot of hate . . . I’m evil, said Tom Cross. There’s a hole in me.”
With Holmes the angelic presence in the novel, Cross evolves into the lurching demoniac presence. Ironically, however, both characters search for salvation. Holmes has a burning desire for salvation under the belief she must cleanse herself of the molestation she suffered, while Cross stumbles through meaningless sex, petty thievery, and eventually an explosive...
(The entire section is 1675 words.)