Our Lady of the Forest

by David Guterson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1675

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 She fights a persistent flu, appearing even more withdrawn as she alone witnesses visions of the Virgin Mary, who urges the girl to build a forest church.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 confrontation in search of his salvation.

As the visionary’s health worsens, she goes a second time into the woods to receive Mary, now with a dozen “pilgrims” and Father Collins in tow. When her vision appears, the priest is struck by Holmes’s transformation: “In the throes of rapture, Ann appeared more diminutive than ever, her hood close like a monk’s cowl . . . her hands clasped in desperate supplication, and he tried to commit her image to memory . . . It was going to have an effect on him, an impact on his ministry.” Rather than making a value judgment on the genuineness of Holmes’s visions, Guterson simply allows his characters the experience. The first time Father Collins witnesses her going into ecstasy, “no one did a thing, not even the priest, who had to admit that he too felt spellbound and in the presence of something holy. The moment passed. His wavering skepticism righted itself.”

Tom Cross once owned a successful timber business, that is, until circumstances forced him to sell his equipment for 10 percent of what he had paid. The bank took his house, while the Stinson Lumber Company, which seems to own the whole forest, continued its ruthless practices. What threatens to unglue Cross, beyond his redundancy as wage earner, is his imminent divorce from his wife, Eleanor, who surrounds herself with her zealous girlfriends and has her lawyer at the ready every time Cross ignores his restraining order.

Cross lives in a motel now. He works as the occasional handyman for the Punjabi couple who own the motel and as a night guard at the jail, and his dark resentment steadily rises. In addition to the conflict with his wife, Cross must live each day with the knowledge of having permanently paralyzed his son. Junior is the antithesis of his macho father, a scared computer nerd with zero interest in sports or logging. In a frenzied attempt to make a man out of him, Cross forced his son out into the forest to cut down a tree. The tree fell in the wrong direction, crushing the boy and snapping his neck. There is nowhere Cross can go and nothing he can do to redeem himself—except perhaps to visit the visionary.

Cross prowls about the periphery of action as pilgrims amass. Once-barren hotels fill with the faithful. Convenience stores and restaurants swell, too, as an Internet site reports on the sightings. Americans have a particular propensity toward a circuslike atmosphere when it comes to certain events: alien sightings, religious sightings, a celebrity’s arrest. All draw the curious and the media in equal proportions. “Motor homes were docked like ships but staggered for access to their doors and here and there in the incidental places were arrangements of aluminum lawn chairs . . . A banner read kay’s religious gifts; under it were plastic crucifixes, books, cassettes, and videotapes.” Further along, Cross overhears a conversation between two men in a restroom as they exchange boasts about their religious photographs. The pilgrims eventually number in the thousands, threatening the forest’s fragile ecosystem. Their compulsion toward a religious epiphany does not assume a sensitivity or compassion for the suffering of others. “A man doused a hard-boiled egg with salt . . . while a hungry man watched with concealed longing. This same juxtaposition of food and desire played itself out through the forest. It was the same with drinking water.” Guterson acknowledges both the need for the extraordinary and the callousness inherent in human beings.

When Stinson Lumber finally steps in and refuses passage to the clearing where Holmes has her visions, Greer, bullhorn in hand, acts as Holmes’s self-appointed spokeswoman. Greer is an insincere, sharp-tongued itinerant, as self-serving as any of the other hucksters making a buck off of the faithful; however, there are moments when the visionary almost moves Greer out of her sarcastic atheism. Still, she passes buckets around for donations, fantasizing about how she will spend the money: “The ramshackle campground made Greer yearn impatiently for Cabo San Lucas. She would sleep naked there and eat fruit and rice, drink margaritas, get high at 9 a.m., take pick-me-up tokes as needed. Shop for limes and tonic water; read travel books beneath the palm trees.” Father Butler, appointed by the bishop to verify the visitations, remains deeply skeptical, particularly after he learns that Holmes has ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Meanwhile, Cross has been kicked out of his lousy motel room, lost his prison guard gig, and caused a ruckus at his wife’s house. Despite the economic downturn, loss of his business, and his son’s paralysis, Cross appears to need little reason for going over the edge. Described as a woebegone Marlboro Man, Cross keeps an arsenal of guns in his car, and his emotions coil like a viper inside him. He finds himself compelled toward Holmes, from whom he catches “the barest hint of her eyes assessing him. Tom had once shot a raccoon in a culvert, the animal invisible except for luminous pupils that unsettled him . . . a penetrating moment of introspection before he’d squeezed the trigger.” He also recognizes, though, that Holmes is just a child. As Cross grabs hold of her shoulder, he feels a force he hopes “might induce some kind of redemption,” but instead Ann begins to cough uncontrollably. Greer steps in to protect her, assaulting Cross with pepper spray. The visionary dies from an asthmatic attack in the struggle.

Years later, Greer returns to find that Stinson Lumber had donated the land for a church, and the city had prospered enough from the pilgrimage to help pay for a beautiful edifice in the forest. Without taking sides, Guterson’s exquisitely rendered novel avows the purifying effects of forgiveness while commenting wryly upon the United States’ bizarre relationship with religious faith.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 22 (August 1, 2003): 1925.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 14 (July 15, 2003): 927.

Library Journal 128, no. 10 (June 1, 2003): 166.

Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2003, p. E1.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 28, 2003, p. R7.

The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 2003, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 30 (July 28, 2003): 75.

Time 162, no. 19 (November 3, 2003): 93.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 21, 2003, p. 21-22.

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