A sense of place strongly informs David Guterson's work; he has often written
about the Pacific Northwest, most notably in Snow Falling on Cedars,
and his natural settings help forge the events in his characters' lives.
In his newest novel, Our Lady of the Forest, Guterson tackles a different
kind of environment: the internal landscape of faith and spirituality. A
drug-addicted Washington teenager an unlikely witness to a miracle
believes she sees the Virgin Mary, initiating a complex and far-reaching
tangle of consequences. In clear, thoughtful prose, Guterson illuminates
her town and the reactions of its inhabitants, ranging from self-deception
to genuine revelation. Ron Charles of the Christian Science Monitor
explains, "This is no Peace Like a River, or any peace at all, really.
But it captures a tempest of faith boiling with the desire for communion."
A portrait of the intersection of grace and desperation, suspicion and a
search for meaning, Our Lady of the Forest is an unsettling, unusual
exploration of the beliefs that we depend on, sacred or not. Jill, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"[A] witty fable of faith, greed, purity, and hope....Sharp and incisive without a trace of either cynicism or credulity: a clever take on a familiar fable or redemption." Kirkus Reviews
"[P]anoramic, psychologically dense....[T]his ambitious and satisfying work builds vivid characters and trenchant storytelling into a serious and compassionate look at the moral quandaries of modern life." Publishers Weekly
"This is Guterson's best book." Chicago Sun-Times
"Another virtuoso performance from David Guterson...Gripping...Marks an expansion of his vision...Transporting...Balances on the tension between belief and despair without ever losing its sense of mystery."
L.A. Times Book Review
"Despite the Roman Catholic flavor of Ann's vision, the dimensions of this compelling novel are catholic in the larger sense. Still, the enormous audience that enjoyed Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars
will find this a far more unsettling book. Agnostics will resonate to Guterson's ambivalence, and atheists may feel pricked by his insight into humanity's thirst for transcendence, but the Christian reading groups that embraced the spirituality of, say, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River
(2001) will be reluctant to take on a story that contains such disturbing scenes of violence and sexual abuse. This is no Peace Like a River
, or any peace at all, really. But it captures a tempest of faith boiling with the desire for communion." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review
In a suspenseful and emotionally charged story of faith at a contemporary crossroads, the bestselling author of Snow Falling on Cedars offers a provocative new novel about a teenage girl who claims to see the Virgin Mary.
About the Author
David Guterson is the author of a collection of short stories, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind; Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense; Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award, the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association Award, and was an international bestseller; and the national bestseller East of the Mountains.
Reading Group Guide
1. The books 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 narrators 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 Anns 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 Anns death, what effect have Anns 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 Anns 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 Anns history?
10. How relevant to her credibility is the fact that Ann wasnt 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 Carolyns outrage when she realizes that “Phenathols behind this massive spectacle. This multimillion-dollar film-set church” [p. 321]? Given their conversation, what is the effect of the novels 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 Anns followers, and the eventual building of the church, have upon the areas economy?
14. What is the meaning of the Virgins dire warnings and of the urgency of her message to Ann? How should readers interpret this aspect of Anns vision, as well as Anns 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 Anns position as a child who is essentially uncared for and homeless, a victim of her mothers neglect? How important are the social issues that brought Ann to North Fork in the novel? Does Anns 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?
A New York Times Notable Book
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups reading of Our Lady of the Forest, a suspenseful and emotionally charged story of faith from the bestselling author of Snow Falling on Cedars.