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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From David Guterson—bestselling author of Snow Falling on Cedars—comes this emotionally charged, provocative novel about what happens when a fifteen-year-old girl becomes an instrument of divine grace.

Ann Holmes is a fragile, pill-popping teenaged runaway who receives a visitation from the Virgin Mary one morning while picking mushrooms in the woods of North Fork, Washington. In the ensuing days the miracle recurs, and the declining logging town becomes the site of a pilgrimage of the faithful and desperate. As these people flock to Ann—and as Ann herself is drawn more deeply into what is either holiness or madness—Our Lady of the Forest—seamlessly splices the miraculous and the mundane.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

I
Annunciation
NOVEMBER 10-NOVEMBER 13, 1999

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 Saint 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. She wore a sweatshirt with its hood drawn tight. She didn't speak to others of her intentions. 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.

As she went the girl ate potato chips and knelt beside rivulets to drink. She swallowed the antihistamine that kept her allergies at bay. Other than looking for mushrooms, she listened for the lonely music of birds and--she confessed this later to Father Collins--stopped twice to masturbate. It was a still day with no rain or fog and no wind stirring branches in the trees, the kind of stillness that stops time, or seems to, for a hiker. The girl paused often to consider it and to acknowledge her aloneness. She prayed the rosary on her knees--it was Wednesday, November tenth, so she said the Glorious Mysteries--before following an elk trail into country she hadn't visited or perhaps didn't recall, a flat grown up with Douglas firs, choked by blowdowns and vine maple draped with witches'-hair. Here she lay in a bed of moss and was seized by a dream that she lay in moss while a shape, a form--a bird of prey, a luminous man--bore down on her from above.

Rising, she found chanterelles buried in the interstices of liverworts and in the shadows of windfalls. She cut them low, brushed them clean and set them carefully in her bucket. For a long time she picked steadily, moving farther into the woods, pleased because it was a rainless day on which she was finding enough mushrooms to justify being there. They drew her on like a spell.

At noon she read from her pocket catechism, then prayed--Give us this day our daily bread--before crossing herself and eating more potato chips and a package of two chocolate donuts. Resting, she heard the note of a thrush, but muted, faint, and distant. Sunlight now filtered through the trees on an angle through the highest branches and she sought out a broad, strong shaft of it, stippled with boiling dust and litterfall, and lay on her back in its luminous warmth, her face turned toward heaven. Again she slept and again she dreamed, this time of a furtive woman in the trees, lit in darkness as though by a spotlight, who exhorted her to rise from the ground and continue her search for chanterelles.

The girl got up and traveled on. She was lost now in an incidental way and the two strange dreams disturbed her. Feeling a vague desire again, she put her hand between her legs, aimlessly, still walking. A cold or flu had hold of her, she thought. Her allergies and asthma seemed heightened too. Her period had started.

The newspapers reported that her name was Ann Holmes, after her maternal grandmother, who died from sepsis and pneumonia a week before Ann was born. Ann and her mother, fifteen at Ann's birth, had lived with Ann's grandfather, a long-haul trucker, a man with complicated gambling debts, in a series of rental homes. The newspapers, though, did not uncover that her mother's boyfriend, a methamphetamine addict, had raped Ann opportunistically beginning when she was fourteen. Afterward he would lie beside her with an expression of antic, contorted suffering etching his hairless long face. Sometimes he cried or apologized, but more often he threatened to kill her.

When Ann was fifteen she took a driver's education class, which she missed only once, on a Friday afternoon, in order to have an abortion. Eight months later she expelled her second fetus into the toilet at a minimart on the heels of a bout with nausea. On her sixteenth birthday she bought a two-door car, dented or crumpled in more than one panel, for three hundred and fifty dollars earned foraging for truffles and chanterelles. The next morning, she drove away.

Ann was diminutive, sparrow-boned, and when she covered her head with her sweatshirt hood it was easy to mistake her for a boy of twelve, 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. 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. Others living there told reporters that she'd rigged up a plastic tarp with twine and often sat under it against a log, reading by firelight. Most described her as silent and subdued, though not unpleasant or inspiring unease, not threatening in her estrangement. Those who saw her in the woods that fall--other mushroom gatherers, mostly, but also several elk and deer hunters and once a Stinson Company timber cruiser--were struck by her inconsequence and by the wariness of her eyes in shadow underneath the drawn hood.

A mushroom picker named Carolyn Greer who lived in a van in the North Fork Campground claimed that on an evening in mid-October she had eaten dinner with Ann Holmes, sharing soup, bread and canned peaches and speaking with her of present matters but never of themselves, their histories. Ann had not had much to say. Mostly she stirred her soup pot, listened, and stared at the flames of the fire. She did indicate a concern for her car, whose transmission no longer allowed her to shift gears or to travel anywhere. The car's battery had petered out, and its windshield and windows appeared permanently clouded with an opaque, viscous vapor. It sat beside her canvas tent, gathering fallen cedar needles, both seats loaded with plastic bags, paper sacks, and cardboard boxes stuffed with her belongings.

Carolyn didn't tell the bishop's representative that while the soup was simmering they got high together. Primarily, it was nobody's business. Furthermore, it implicated her too. Carolyn indulged in pot regularly. It surprised her that Ann, after a few tokes, did not become effusive and talkative, like most stoned people around a campfire. Instead she became even more reserved, more hermetic and taciturn. Her face disappeared inside the hood of her sweatshirt. She spoke when spoken to, terse but polite, and poked incessantly at the wood coals. Her only subject was her dead car.

Stranded, Ann had resorted to the county bus, which stopped at a convenience store a half mile from the campground and dropped her in front of the MarketTime in North Fork for eighty-five cents, one way. She paid, the county driver reported, with exact change, sometimes using pennies, and replied in kind when he greeted her. Once he commented on the mushrooms in her bucket, on their number, size, and golden hue, and she gave him some loosely wrapped in newspaper she found at the back of the bus. On the highway, she slept with her head against the window. Frequently she read from a paperback book he eventually discerned was a catechism. When she got off in town she said thank you or good-bye, her hood still drawn around her face.

A half dozen times she accepted a ride from a mushroom and brush picker named Steven Mossberger, who wore a dense beard, Coke-bottle glasses, and a wool cap pulled low on his temples. Seeing her carrying her bucket of chanterelles and walking the road one afternoon, Mossberger rolled down the window of his pick-up, explained that he lived in the campground as she did, that he picked mushrooms just like her, then asked if she wanted a lift. Ann refused him without affront. No, thanks, she said. I'm okay.

The next time he saw her, in late October, he pulled over at dusk in a modest rain and she accepted without hesitating. When he leaned across to push ajar the door, she got in smelling of wet clothes and mushrooms, set the bucket of chanterelles on her lap, and said, It's a little wet out.

Where are you from? Mossberger asked.

Down in Oregon. Not far from the coast.

What's your name?

She gave him her first. He told her his full name. He put his hand out to shake hers and she slipped her hand into his.

He wanted to believe, afterward, that this moment was freighted with spiritual meaning, that in taking her hand he felt the hand of God, and he described it that way to the diocesan committee and to the bishop's representative--a hand that was more than other hands, he said, connecting him with something deeper than his own life--but in fact, he understood privately, what he felt was probably little more than the small thrill a man gets from shaking hands with a woman.

In North Fork, Ann sold her mushrooms to Bob Frame, a mechanic who worked on logging equipment and ran his mushroom business on the side. Garrulous and jocular most of the time, he spoke with an instinctive brevity and disdain to the first journalist who entreated him. The girl's mushrooms, Frame said, were always meticulously field cleaned, and her bucket contained few culls. Only once, on an evening of bitter rain, did she drink the coffee he kept about as a gratuity for his pickers. For a few minutes she sat by the electric heater, sipping from a Styrofoam cup, watching as he layered mushrooms in newspaper and weighed the day's take on a scale. It seemed to him, working close to her, that she hadn't bathed or laundered her clothing in a long time, maybe weeks. He did recall that she kept her pay in a leather pouch worn around her neck, not in the pocket of her jeans. Her shoes, he noted, were well-worn, the sole of one of them separating from the upper so that her damp wool sock showed through. Even in his shed she wore her sweatshirt hood and kept her hands in her sweatshirt pockets.

Frame didn't tell the journalist that she could give no social security number when he requested one for his records. He'd paid her cash and noted nothing in his books of recompense made to an Ann Holmes, and because of that small worrisome omission he was angry with himself for having said anything about Ann Holmes at all. He spoke to no more journalists afterward and proclaimed in town that the media circus perpetually surrounding the visionary was a spectacle he couldn't participate in and still live with himself. In truth it was the specter of an IRS audit that made him afraid to speak of her, though he did tell his wife, swearing her to secrecy, that once when the girl freed her pouch from her sweatshirt she also inadvertently brought forth a necklace bearing a crucifix, which Bob said glowed a brilliant gold.

From Frame's shed Ann carried her bucket to MarketTime and bought a few things each evening. One checker recalled her proclivity for sugar wafers, small cartons of chocolate milk, deli burritos, and Starbursts. No one else remembered very much, except that she always wore her hood and counted her returned change. She asked for the key to the storeroom toilet more often than other customers and used the dish soap in the utility sink to wash her hands afterward. Occasionally she stuffed pennies in the cans for the Injured Loggers' Fund.

In early November, while foraging for chanterelles, two girls from North Fork came across Ann Holmes in the woods east of town. They were middle-school girls, seventh graders, who had employed the ruse of mushrooming all fall to smoke pot in the woods after school. Besides their mushroom buckets and pocketknives, they brought along a bag of marijuana, a small pipe, and matches. Deeply concerned about getting caught, careful girls who giggled for long stretches after smoking even a little pot, they were mindful of the need for chewing gum, eyedrops, and doses of cheap perfume. They were also ravenous, paranoid, and startled by noises in the forest. The singing of a bird could worry them. A plane overhead, a truck on a distant road, froze them in their tracks, wide-eyed.

They'd been stoned that afternoon for a half hour and were finding mushrooms here and there, giggling together in their usual manner, when they saw Ann Holmes perched on a log, watching them with her hands in her pockets and her sweatshirt hood drawn around her cheeks so that her face lay in shadow. At first they thought she was a boy of their own age, an unfamiliar boy not from their town, and even when they came close enough to see that her bucket was brimming with chanterelles, neither was certain that she wasn't a boy, though they inspected her face closely. Both were conscious of being stoned and wondered if it was observable somehow, if their behavior gave them away. They exerted themselves to act normal. Whoa, said one. You scored.

I should have brought along another bucket.

Amazing.

Ass kicking.

Have you ever noticed that bucket rhymes with fuck it?

Crystal.

Excuse me.

God, Crystal.

I'm sure. It rhymes.

God, Crystal. I'm sure.

They giggled now in a truncated manner, trying to stop themselves. They both put hands over their mouths in an effort to hold in laughter. Ann loosened her sweatshirt drawstring, pushed the hood away from her face, and ran her fingers through her hair. Her hair was short, the color of old straw, matted to her head, unkempt. The others could see now that Ann was a girl, which was not as good as a strange boy in the woods to talk about at school. Are you like from where? one asked.

I'm from the campground.

You were like born there?

They laughed again, covering their mouths. One of them nearly fell over.

You guys are baked, Ann said.

We're not baked we're totally hammered.

I'm like fried. Totally.

I'm like ripped.

Me, too.

They sat cross-legged on the forest floor. The one named Crystal pulled out a deck of cards. The other produced the bag of marijuana. Let's get baked, she suggested. Maybe a little, Ann replied.

They smoked dope, played Crazy Eights, ate a rope of red licorice, some Dots and a box of Red Hots. Ann asked if they believed in Jesus. Uh oh, said one. Are you a Jesus freak?


From the Hardcover edition.
David Guterson|Author Q&A

About David Guterson

David Guterson - Our Lady of the Forest

Photo © Tom Collicott

David Guterson is the author of five novels: Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the PEN/Faulkner and the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award; East of the Mountains; Our Lady of the Forest, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times and Seattle Post- Intelligencer Best Book of the Year; The Other; and Ed King. He is also the author of a previous story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind; a poetry collection, Songs for a Summons; and two works of nonfiction, Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense and Descent: A Memoir of Madness. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he lives in Washington State.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with David Guterson
Author of OUR LADY OF THE FOREST


Q: How did you come to write a novel about marian apparitions?
A:
Hope, faith, desperation, doubt, and greed all coalesce quickly around marian events, and those were all things I felt compelled to write about. More, when I started to read the historical narratives—the stories that unfolded in places like Lourdes and Fatima—I saw that these stories had predictable conventions, and this interested me, because I love to work in existing forms, and I began to feel enthusiastic about the artistic challenge of telling an apparition story in a modern context. In sum, it was just a matter of giving more thought than I previously had to a phenomenon I was already aware of and always interested in.

Q: Always interested? Why?
A:
Because like most people I’m psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually dissatisfied with the notion of the divine offered up to us in the west, which is divinity devoid of the feminine. We all know at some level of deep disturbance that the God put before us by Judaism and Christianity—the image of Jehovah as a wrathful male, the image of the son of God as a merciful presence, the notion of the Holy Spirit, which feels genderless—doesn’t square with what we sense at the level of the unconscious, which is that no conception of the divine can be complete without a feminine component, and probably not without a major feminine component. The Gnostics knew this, and that’s one reason the early church squashed them. For the Gnostics, or at least for some of the Gnostics, Jehovah was a sub-deity; at the center of the universe was the Divine Mother, the embodiment of wisdom. The worldwide and enormously popular cult of the Virgin Mary exists because at a grassroots level human beings yearn to give expression to the feminine divine, and to worship it, and this explains why to this day we have cult-like apparition events, even in modern countries.

Q: Are you Catholic?
A:
I’m not. I was born to Jewish parents and grew up in an atmosphere of secular humanism and general agnosticism. I remain to this day agnostic myself and am not a member of any organized religious group and don’t attend a house of worship. So in this book I do what novelists do. I get outside myself, away from my own experience, and write about people who are not like me—in this case, I write about Catholics.

Q: You mentioned that historical apparition narratives, such as the story of Bernadette at Lourdes, have conventions.
A:
That’s right, and they’re as follows: First, the apparition usually unfolds in a time and place where there is a particular travail at work, such as famine, economic hardship, or upheaval in the established church. Second, the seer is generally a young person, often a girl, or a group of girls, or a group of children, generally of very modest means, humble, incidental, maybe even illiterate—barefoot children. Third, the seer is doubted, and doubts herself, and is inclined not to speak of what she has witnessed, but Fourth, is compelled to speak of it by Mary herself. Fifth, there is grassroots interest and support, Sixth, there is official church doubt and official church investigation. Seventh, there is a message and sometimes a miracle, such as the discovery of holy water, and Eighth, the church is finally forced to come to grips with popular support for the seer and make some accommodation to reality.

Q: Is there any connection between your novel and the scandal in the Catholic Church involving pedophile priests?
A:
None. It may be in the news, it may be about Catholics, but it has nothing to do with my book whatsoever, which I started writing years before these stories about priests emerged in the press. Just a coincidence, I suppose.

Q: What reaction do you expect from the Catholic Church or from Catholics generally?
A:
Some people may be aghast to find that the priest in my novel, Father Collins, is a human being who doubts his vocation and experiences sexual desire. There are plenty of people who would prefer the priest they’ve learned to expect from television and the movies—a priest who isn’t really a human being, in the end, someone flawed and conflicted. There are probably people who will be aghast to find that the seer in this novel is a 16 year old drug-addled runaway, a girl who has had an abortion, a thief and in her own mind a whore, a rape victim addicted to antihistamines—people were aghast about Bernadette too, at first, people were aghast at Saint Francis of Assisi, many were aghast about Jesus himself—and maybe some of the people who will object to the portrayals in this book would have scoffed at Jesus if they’d met him.

Q: Your story is set in a depressed logging town in Washington State.
A:
Yes. I lived temporarily in a very small logging town and took a lot of mental notes. And what I found was a lot of unhappiness, a lot of physical and emotional abuse, a lot of self-abuse, alcoholism, violence, masochism, irrationality, political extremism, a general brutality of the spirit that was very disturbing. Put that together with rain, gray skies, federal policy conspiring against you, unemployment, and the presence nearby of many flourishing high tech liberals with coffee cups—it all makes for something very bizarre and for me, tragic, captivating, and finally ironic—ironic in the sense that such a horrifically depressing community sits in the middle of an exquisitely beautiful rain forest. Ann’s apparitions unfold in this forest, which is appropriately moss-hung, dense, and mysterious.

Q: Church officials in your novel undertake an investigation into the authenticity of Ann Holmes’ apparitions, and there is much discussion of a protocol for this. Does the church indeed have formal guidelines for investigating marian apparitions?
A:
It does. There is an official process known as “discernment” which informs every significant report of a marian apparition. It is the church’s position that the entire body of divine revelation is offered to us in the person of Christ, and that nothing new can follow, so instances of private revelation, such as marian apparitions, are either false or, at best, visitations that only confirm his teachings. The seminal texts on the discernment process are Father Augustin Poulain’s The Graces of Interior Prayer, published in 1901, and more recently, Father Benedict Groeschel’s A Still, Small Voice. These texts guide the process of discernment and give a sense of structure and definition to priests and diocesan committees charged with determining whether an apparition has any validity. They are in character conservative and rigorous but they do not close the door altogether on the possibility of valid apparitions and they remind us that the church has to some extent sanctioned prior apparitions, such as Bernadette’s apparition at Lourdes.

Q: Has the church sanctioned any of the marian apparitions reported in this country?
A:
None. And we’ve had our share. It’s interesting to note the peculiarly American Nature of apparition events here, the tackiness and commercialism, the strange Polaroids people exchange, the videotapes, motels, campgrounds, muddy parking lots, the rosaries and chaplets for sale—I tried to bring this element of it into my story, and I enjoyed the nexus of spirituality and contemporary culture as I wrote. But the church has sanctioned apparitions elsewhere—most notably at Lourdes, but at places like Fatima and Garabandal, too. Fatima is interesting because it generated a set of secrets—information from Mary which was to be held by the church until such time as it could properly be released—possibly an apocalyptic message. There is often something apocalyptic about marian apparitions, the sense that we are being warned by Mary that God is angry and that she can only intercede for so much longer before His wrath descends.

Q: This is a common role for Mary—Mary as intermediary. Standing between us and the wrath of God.
A:
That’s just one of her myriad roles. Over the centuries she has been manifested in a variety of female permutations. As the subservient handmaid of the Lord often, but also as a mediator, as the Queen of Heaven, as the Mother of God, and also as divine in her own right and not merely human. It took centuries of pressure from ordinary people who insisted on it by their very worship, but finally the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception, her divine birth, became church doctrine, and then, after more centuries, the Church finally affirmed, in 1950, what millions of Catholics already believed—that Mary had ascended, body and soul, into Heaven, like her son before her.

Q: In an era when religious zeal has become central to global politics, your story seems perhaps pertinent to the moment. Is that what you intended?
A:
No. I wrote 90% of this prior to 9/11. I didn’t conceive or develop Our Lady of the Forest in the post 9/11 context, and I didn’t revise or re-think it in light of 9/11. Although I must add that the events of 9/11 produced in me an excruciating period of inactivity as a writer. And during that time, I did note that what I’d been doing in Our Lady of the Forest might be relevant to where we find ourselves. We feel, as a nation, that peculiar and unsettling sensation of the lost, and like the seekers in the forest who inhabited this story in droves, we’re inundated by both desire and fear.

Q: SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is a mystery. OUR LADY OF THE FOREST is a mystery too of sorts. It asks if miracles really do happen, or if they are the product of real life ingredients (antihistamines, pot, etc.) as they come up against the human condition, all propelled by the only thing we have to hold on to—hope. Does it matter if the miracle is real or imagined? Your novel doesn't direct the reader to believe one way or another. Why did you choose to remain open ended about this question? Talk about our "need to believe."
A:
Whether the Virgin is literally present is irrelevant. What matters is that people believe she is, and because they believe it, their lives are altered. The fact that passionate belief can generate this kind of transformation constitutes a kind of miracle. We don’t believe because there are miracles; on the contrary, there are “miracles”—complex, gradual, nuanced changes in our lives — because we believe. And as you say, I don’t direct readers to believe anything one way or the other. That, of course, is not the novelist’s role. I’m not a preacher, a priest, or a rabbi. And stories aren’t sermons. They exist to prompt in readers a confrontation with the human condition. They raise questions, but they don’t answer them. They entertain, and in so doing, they create a context for reflection. Reading, we pause in the course of our lives to ponder insoluble questions.



Praise

Praise

“Outstanding….Our Lady of the Forest is surely one of this year’s best novels.”—The Plain Dealer

“An intense and affecting journey of faith, miracle and humanity.”—The Denver Post

“Like a latter-day Dostoyevsky, Guterson dips into the world of ordinary people….A disturbing novel that challenges us to consider the power and mystery of faith, and what role religious belief should play in an unjust world.”—Chicago Tribune

“Epic….Eccentric, accomplished….[Guterson is] writing with more humor than ever before.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A thoughtful…rumination on faith and human frailty.”—Entertainment Weekly
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
A New York Times Notable Book

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Our Lady of the Forest, a suspenseful and emotionally charged story of faith from the bestselling author of Snow Falling on Cedars.

About the Guide

Ann Holmes seems an unlikely candidate for revelation. A sixteen-year-old runaway, she is an itinerant mushroom picker who lives in a tent in a damp, depressed lumber town in Washington State. But on a November afternoon, in the foggy woods of North Fork, the Virgin Mary comes to her, clear as day. Thousands of worshipers descend upon the site, and Ann, asthmatic, feverish, but insistent upon the reality of what she has seen and heard, becomes an unassuming heroine in a drama that pits the Church’s demand for the truth against her followers’ need for miracles.

Father Donald Collins has only recently become a priest and is new to North Fork. Kind but skeptical, he is also troubled by his sexual attraction to Ann. When the Church sends another priest to North Fork to investigate the report of Ann’s visions, Father Collins is called upon to participate in an official evaluation of the veracity of Ann’s sightings: Are they delusions or a true calling to God?

Word spreads and thousands of worshipers, along with the press, converge upon the town, while Carolyn Greer, a smart-talking fellow mushroomer, becomes Ann’s disciple of sorts, as well as her impromptu publicity manager. And Tom Cross, an embittered logger who’s lost his job, his home, and his family since his son was paralyzed in a logging accident, seeks out Ann as the last hope for both himself and his son.

As Father Collins searches his own soul and Ann’s, as Carolyn struggles with her less than admirable intentions, as Tom alternates between despair and hope, Our Lady of the Forest tells a suspenseful, often wryly humorous, and deeply involving story of faith at a contemporary crossroads.

About the Author

David Guterson is the author of the novels East of the Mountains and Snow Falling on Cedars, and of a collection of short stories, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind. A Guggenheim Fellow and a PEN/Faulkner Award winner, he lives in Washington State.

Discussion Guides

1. The book’s opening echoes the tone of official reportage, using “the girl” instead of naming Ann Holmes. Elsewhere in the narrative Ann is called “the visionary.” Why? Does this create a sense of distance from her? Does the narrative tone of voice, as well as the narrator’s stance, shift throughout the novel? Is the tone of objectivity about the events and characters maintained?

2. What role do sexuality and sexual desire play in this story, particularly for Tom Cross, Father Collins, and Ann? What attracts Father Collins to Ann [p. 38]? Are beauty, sexual desire, violence, and victimization interrelated in this novel? If so, how?

3. Does Guterson expect his readers to believe that Ann’s encounters with the Virgin Mary are real? Does he seem sympathetic to the position of Father Collins, who is skeptical and yet open-minded, or of Carolyn, who is entirely analytical and cynical about the visions? Is there a character with whom readers are most likely to identify? Who is it?

4. What kind of person is Carolyn Greer? Is she an opportunist, an intellectual, a cynic, an actor, a thief? If she is talented and intelligent, why is she living in a campground in North Fork? Is she a more intriguing character than Ann?

5. Why did Father Collins decide to become a priest? Does the priesthood solve his personal dilemmas? Does he have the necessary qualities of leadership to be a priest? A year after Ann’s death, what effect have Ann’s visions and their aftermath had on Father Collins? Has he become a better priest or a wiser person?

6. What does the extended passage in which Tom Cross thinks about his family life, and particularly his son, tell us about him [pp. 96–105]? Is Tom Cross responsible for the accident that paralyzed his son? With his anger, desperation, and self-loathing, how dangerous is he? Is there anything admirable or positive about him? How does he change?

7. How does Guterson evoke the unique locale of the Pacific Northwest, with its local economy that pits loggers against “jogging-shoed, tree-hugging, latte lovers” [p. 107]? In what ways does he evoke the feeling of life in a rainy, foggy place? How important is the setting to the story, in terms of the local economy, weather, and landscape?

8. Is there any connection between Ann’s visions and the fact that she has been repeatedly raped by a drug addict who was obsessed with religion [pp. 131–32]? Does the novel suggest that her devotion to the Virgin results from a need to cleanse herself of her own past and to make amends for the abortion she had [p. 133]?

9. The narrator shares with readers the information that Ann is a victim of violent sexual abuse; this fact is not made known, however, to Father Collins or to the public, and so it is not a factor in the inquiry into her case. What are the effects on the reader of knowing Ann’s history?

10. How relevant to her credibility is the fact that Ann wasn’t raised as a Catholic, like Bernadette at Lourdes or the children at Fátima? Do her followers care? Is this a story about Catholicism or about a larger phenomenon in America today? What is Guterson suggesting about religious faith or about the need for it?

11. Father Collins and Father Butler know that Ann has used psilocybin mushrooms, and this leads them to suspect that her visions are hallucinogenic flashbacks [pp. 285–87]. The evidence gathered by Carolyn, however, points to side effects of the allergy medication Ann habitually used. How does Father Collins respond to Carolyn’s outrage when she realizes that “Phenathol’s behind this massive spectacle. This multimillion-dollar film-set church” [p. 321]? Given their conversation, what is the effect of the novel’s final scene [pp. 322–23]?

12. Does Guterson suggest that there is a point at which hysteria and faith overlap? What are readers to make of the thousands of believers who come to North Fork to follow Ann to the site of her visions? What does Guterson suggest about the psychology of large groups and the behavior of crowds [pp. 136–48]?

13. Why does Carolyn come back to visit North Fork for the opening of the church [p. 316]? What effect do Ann’s followers, and the eventual building of the church, have upon the area’s economy?

14. What is the meaning of the Virgin’s dire warnings and of the urgency of her message to Ann? How should readers interpret this aspect of Ann’s vision, as well as Ann’s fear of Satan?

15. There are often moments of humor in Our Lady of the Forest. What incidents or descriptions are particularly funny? What sort of humor do they exemplify?

16. To what extent does Guterson emphasize Ann’s position as a child who is essentially uncared for and homeless, a victim of her mother’s neglect? How important are the social issues that brought Ann to North Fork in the novel? Does Ann’s obsession with the Virgin Mary reflect her need for a caring mother?

17. The novel builds to a climactic scene in which Tom Cross confronts Ann in the church [pp. 300–10]. What are the dynamics of the scene? What does Tom Cross want from Ann, and how close to violence is he? Why does Carolyn intervene as she does?

Suggested Readings

St. Augustine, Confessions; Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge; Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium; Janice T. Connell, The Visions of the Children: The Apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Medjugorje; Annie Dillard, The Living; Mary Gordon, Joan of Arc; Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy; Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion; Stephen King, The Dead Zone; Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith; Blaise Pascal, Pensées; Mark Salzman, Lying Awake; Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones and Lucky; Colm Toibin, The Sign of the Cross; Thérèse Taylor, Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death and Visions; Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary.

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