This novel is about a teenage girl, Ann Holmes, who claims to see the Virgin Mary. A sixteen-year-old runaway, Ann is an itinerant mushroom picker who lives in a tent. But on a November afternoon, in the foggy woods of North Fork, Washington, the Virgin comes to her, clear as day. Father Collins--a young priest new to North Fork--finds Ann disturbingly alluring. But it is up to him to evaluate--impartially--the veracity of Ann's sightings: Are they delusions, or a true calling to God? As word spreads and thousands, including the press, converge upon the town, 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 has been out of work since his son was paralyzed in a terrible accident, finds in Ann's visions a last chance for redemption 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.
Guterson is genuine, vivid, and unblinking in portraying the various players. And the cupidity - both in its lustful and avaricious meanings - shows through in this closely- and well-observed story.
Ann Holmes is a teenage runaway girl whose only source of income is from gathering and then selling mushrooms in the woods around the North Fork camp-ground in up-state Washington. One day whilst alone in the forest as she brushes dirt from the gills of a mushroom she notices a strange bright light that hovers between two trees. She is initially frightened and runs away reciting an Our Father and three Hail Marys as she does so. However when she witnesses the light again she sees a human figure within it gliding towards her and recognises the figure as being the Virgin Mary. On returning to the camp-ground Ann seeks refuge in her friend's Carolyn Greer camper-van. On hearing Ann's tale Carolyn is sceptical but agrees to accompany Ann back into the woods for another look. Although Ann alone sees the figure again Carolyn is struck by her reaction to the apparition and reports the sighting to a few of her own friends. Thus word spreads and so ever greater crowds of pilgrims, including the local priest Father Donald Collins, turn up to accompany the two women to share and document Ann's contact with the Holy Virgin.
Ann Holmes is an unlikely choice as a visionary. She is sixteen, an itinerant runaway, the daughter of an unmarried teenage mother who lives with a meth-amphetamine addict who at fourteen repeatedly raped Ann resulting in two abortions. Ann is a severe asthmatic, small, skinny, has jagged cut hair and constantly wears a hooded sweatshirt to shroud her features. Carolyn Greer a fellow mushroom picker who lives in a van in the North Fork camp-ground is the only person she has that even approaches being a friend.
North Fork was once a relatively prosperous logging town but has been in decline for a number of years due to environmental concerns meaning that many off the loggers are unemployed, listless and desperate for an upturn. Guterson's imagery gives his audience a clear sense of his setting, the landscape is almost tangible and the reader can almost smell the aroma of the forest and the desperation in its inhabitants.
However, the real strength of this book is the characterisation of the four main characters, Ann, Carolyn, Father Collins and a former logger called Tom Cross. All are deeply flawed. Ann has been subjected to an abusive where she was raped and has taken a cocktail of drugs, including magic mushrooms or psilocybin, to cope with the trauma. Carolyn is a non-believer who is mouthy and exploitive whereas Father Collins is fairly newly qualified as a priest and is struggling with his own calling and sexual desires in a mildewing parish. Tom Cross is an ex-logger who now works as a prison officer whose bullying of his wimpish son led to the latter having an accident which left him a quadriplegic. Tom curses God but feels guilt for his son's accident and is desperate for a measure of redemption becoming in the process an unlikely believer.
Despite what on the face of it appears a rather gloomy subject matter there is also a certain wry humour dotted within the book which made me smile. In particular the author takes a rather tongue in cheek dig at the resultant commercialism that enters the scene along with greater numbers of followers with it's accompanying trinkets and Catholic memorabilia. Ann reports that the Virgin wants a church built in the forest and ministry commenced by the faithful whilst church leaders who scrutinize Ann's story have already decided that she is a fraud. Ann wants the greedy to turn over a new leaf but is unable to see that those closest to her are also guilty of that sin.
However, Guterson successfully manages to skirt the question of truth or fraud but instead focuses on the persistence and perhaps even need of faith in modern times, the limits of human reason measured against spiritual yearning.
I have a few minor quibbles with this book, the use of the word "nigger" in one section and the lack of quotation marks for dialogue, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The story is told with passion and readers whatever their beliefs will be able to relate to the feelings that it inspires even to those, who like myself, aren't particularly religious at all.
Nothing in the story justifies its development into 320+ pages. A real pain to get through.