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Our Lady of the Forest by David Guterson


Rating: (Read only if your interest is strong)


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I liked Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson’s debut novel in 1995. Four years later, I spit out his second novel, East of the Mountains, after reading a little bit. Now, four more years have passed, and I was ready to give Guterson another try with his new novel, Our Lady of the Forest. In many respects, I wish I had the time back that I spent reading this dense new offering. Teenage runaway Ann Holmes has a vision of the Virgin Mary in the forest outside an economically depressed logging town in Washington State. The sins and guilt of the community come out as the world invades the site of the vision.

Like Snow, Our Lady of the Forest captures scene and place very well. Unfortunately for Guterson, plot stinks and with every page, I thought Ron Hansen did this so much better, in far fewer pages, in his masterful Mariette in Ecstasy. I found myself not caring about any of the characters, and getting tired of the guilt.

Here’s an excerpt, pp. 52-60:

He agreed to accompany them the following morning on an expedition to the woods in question, though not without making it explicitly clear that by so doing he offered no sanction or any imprimatur of the church, the trip was merely exploratory, he undertook it speculatively, he would meet them at approximately ten-thirty with his raincoat and his boots. He was casual in manner throughout his farewell, but when they were gone he couldn't concentrate on his reading—Fear and Trembling, by the angst-ridden Kierkegaard; the priest always read five things at once—and browsed through the National Catholic Reporter with its ads for spiritual retreats and sabbaticals, for hermitages and conferences offering massage or tai chi, one quoting the mystic Rumi in a banal and embarrassing marketing ploy: Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there's a field. I'll meet you there. Father Collins combed the classifieds and considered the parish position in Ecuador, Fishing villages on the sea, and the pilgrimage to Spain and the Celtic pilgrimage and the possibility of Florida Priest Week, to be held at Boynton Beach. Was there really something called Florida Priest Week? A coterie of priests in bathing suits and zoris, discussing, say, the communion of saints or the origins of the church's sacraments? God be with you. Brother William—and now could you please pass the cocoa butter? Father Collins laughed out loud. He was laughing out loud when the phone rang.

It was Larry Garber from his congregation, who out of both religious zeal and a yearning for perpetual self-flagellation was developing in his evening hours a pro bono set of architects plans for the proposed new Saint Josephs Church of North Fork. Father, he said. I'm calling late. I don't like to call anybody this late at night—especially you, a clergyman—but I have a few small questions I need to ask if you don't mind for a moment.

I'm always here if you need me, said Father Collins. Besides, it's only nine-thirty.

Well, regarding, again, the elevation of the altar. Have you given any more thought to that? And the three options I presented you with last week for the dimensions of the sacristy? Can we spend a few minutes on those two things? And briefly—again—about the soffits?

I'm glad you called, said Father Collins. I'd love to discuss the sacristy in particular. I've been giving it substantial thought.

White lies are loved by God, he told himself. Because the last thing he wanted to do right now was discuss a hypothetical sacristy. Hypothetical because the new church was hypothetical: there were no funds for it. The town’s economic demise and the general indifference of the larger diocese toward its much-beleaguered North Fork parish made certain of that. The new-church notion had been conjured up almost two years before Father Collins' tenure and the account that had been established for it was now at seventeen thousand dollars and earning three and a half percent. The whole thing seemed, to Father Collins, like an empty and ultimately fruitless hobby, this endless tinkering with lines on a blueprint, worrying which way the doors would swing, what sort of finish to put on the hinges, it seemed to him like a child's project, like Tinkertoys or Lincoln Logs, he could no more imagine being an architect and spending his working life on these things than he could imagine worshiping Satan. His "work" on the new church was theater, a performance. It was also unexpectedly therapeutic, like woodworking or building model boats. A pastime that felt to him ominous and boring, a staying action, a siege. He wasn't doing anything important and that fact elicited a fundamental angst not even Kierkegaard could vanquish.

I prefer, he said to Larry Garber, option two for the sacristy. I think it gives us more room to work with. And 1m willing to give up the office space. The third option—that's too much. I lose the entire nook for my files. I don't think we want to lose that flush face, the files pushed back, like we talked about.

There was at least ten minutes of this sort of blather, and then Larry Garber asked, tentatively, if Father Collins had heard the rumor about a girl who claimed to see the Virgin Mary.

Yes, said the priest. I've heard of that.

What do you think?

As you say—it's a rumor.

What have you heard?

Various things.

I understand she's a mushroomer-type person.

Yes, well. We'll wait and see.

I understand she's a runaway or something. And maybe—mentally unstable.

Mentally unstable, said Father Collins. All the saints were mentally unstable. Saint Teresa of Avila was mentally unstable, as was her friend Saint John of the Cross. As was Saint Francis of Assisi.


So look, we'll talk about the footing drains soon.

After I hear from the engineer. I'll give him a push. Tomorrow morning.

There's no hurry, said Father Collins. And God bless you, Larry, in your work. God be with you in it.

After he hung up he dropped the newspaper on the floor and examined his bookcase for anything pertinent to Marian apparitions. There was nothing so he did the remaining dishes before falling onto his bed still clothed where idly he remembered with disturbing clarity the sallow beauty of the girls complexion and thought of her saying I'm so not pure, and then he recalled the redhead on the Alaska boat exhorting him to greater heights. These images waned, his fantasies dwindled, and he recollected that his mother had been a dues-paying member of the Marian Helpers and a supporter of the Legion of Mary, had sometimes practiced the First Saturday devotions, had kept Lourdes photos in a keepsake book, had made a trip to Our Lady of Scottsdale in conjunction with a convention of remote-control glider enthusiasts held near the Grand Canyon. He was in seminary and she sent him a postcard depicting the Arizona apparition with a countenance resembling a Barbie doll's. One hundred and two degrees but very dry, with redrock mountains. Your father's stomach has been a tad upset but he is finally taking something for it after a little bit of convincing. The convention was a big success and the Grand Canyon had a spectacular sunset and then we drove here to Our Lady of Scottsdale which frankly is disappointing. Looking forward to seeing you Labor Day. Proud of you—Dad too. XXX Morn


She no longer sent postcards. Recently his mother had discovered e-mail, ensnaring him in an instant messaging relationship that made him loath to go on-line. Just checking in, she would write invasively. I'm still here, he'd reply in surrender. When do you think you might come home? I am home, so to speak, I guess. You know what I mean. I have some free time in 2.013. Your father's birthday is coming up. Dad's getting old—is he depressed about it? Your father doesn't get depressed. Maybe he should, wrote Donny.

He put his sisters on his buddy list. Forgive me Father for I have sinned—something of that ilk would pop onto his screen. So what else is new? I'm sleeping with my lover's lover—do you think that's okay with God? I'd ask for you, you know I would, but I don't want to bore Him with the details of your sex life. 1m also sleeping with my neighbor's black Lab. Cruelty to animals. Better than nothing. Two-word limit. You lose. No way. Make it one. Okay.

Or: How many loggers have you converted this week? I stopped counting when it got to be a problem. I want to visit. Well don't wear Gore-Tex. What's acceptable? Nothing, really. It's a town with NAKED ONLY signs? Its a town with YOU'RE NOT WELCOME signs. I feel so welcomed in places like that. EARTH FIRST: WE'LL LOG THE OTHER PLANETS LATER. So—ahem—you're doing okay? HUG A LOGGER: YOU'LL NEVER GO BACK TO TREES. Gee I guess you're doing great. I LOVE SPOTTED OWLS—FRIED.

Or: You've been a priest for almost a year. You're excellent with a calendar. No regrets you ex-pothead? It isn't possible to have no regrets. Mother Teresa wouldn't say that. Mother Teresas not an ex-pothead. You have to miss the act of fornication. Fornication remains inviting. Satan is powerful. Father Collins. But I don't want fornication, really, what I want is meaning. Fornications meaningful. For however long it takes, agreed; then postcoital depression, in my case. You're a very heavy dude. Father. It's a heavy job, sister—very weighty. Couldn't it be like one-year probation? I wouldn't have to wait a whole year. Well Jesus Christ. Quit.

Quit? He'd arrived in North Fork the previous November and found that his congregation was twenty-seven families, half of them out of work. There was a core of twelve families regularly at mass, a gathering of forty to fifty people, the majority with Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon names like Goble and Pendergast. Half of these were staples at confession, which he sat for fascinated three times a week: I got drunk and shoved my daughter against a wall when I caught her with a six-pack. I ripped off the clinic for these pills I like. I stole a T-bone at MarketTime by shoving it down the front of my pants. I cheated on my Food Handling test. I hung around till they were just bout closed and when she went into the back to get something I took a bottle from behind the bar and stuck it in my coat. Or: I siphoned gas because I didn't have none and didn't leave a note or nothing. I didn't go all the way but I sure came close and I didn't tell my husband about it. I took some paper clips at work and after that it was like a flood and I just filled my house with office supplies and with cleaning stuff from the closet. Or: I rammed a Forest Service gate last night. I borrowed a chain saw from behind Pete’s shop and just didn't never return it. I was out elk hunting with no success and out of sheer frustration I guess it was I shot somebody's cat.

There was the woman with persisting sexual thoughts about her teenage sons best friend. There was the girl considering birth control measures whose virginity was under siege. There was the man who was only recently remarried but sleeping with his ex-wife again, to his endless astonishment. There was the grocery store checker upbraiding herself for ignoring her mother in Alabama, where she was dying of kidney failure. There was the divorced man whose daughter hated him, the divorced woman whose son hated her, the former car-parts sales clerk who hated everybody. There was the woman who felt she was uncharitable because she hadn't made enough hospital visits since her confession the week before. Then there were the members of the Tom Cross family with their highly appropriate surname. The girl of fourteen sat with her mother near the middle front every week but Tom Cross always sat by himself farther toward the rear. No matter that they were separated, as a whole they were a disturbing reminder of God's capricious mystery. They'd been visited by the worst sort of accident. The Cross boy, nineteen, was paralyzed. A committee had formed to attend this tragedy, and like the chorus in a Greek play its members felt called upon to comment. Be prepared, its chairwoman had written Father Collins, a week before he came to North Fork, for a family in a state of disarray, a family much in need of your ministry. Perhaps it is for them as much as for anything that you've been summoned to us.

But did Father Collins feel summoned? Not in that way, not called. He had simply replied when asked by the bishop that he was willing to go where he was needed. And he had only said this because to his ear it sounded like what a new priest should say, a properly pious and humble new priest who understood his vocation. So in truth it was via this momentary playacting that Father Collins was summoned. He had practiced a small heroic deception. By the route of his own deceit he had landed in a dying timber town. Now and again he tried to convince himself that in fact he had not engaged in a falsehood but had declaimed before the bishop instead his truer and more noble self, discovering it in that moment. As if the words had surprised even him—wherever I am needed. As if inspired by all his training to rise to this occasion. But most of the time, alone in his trailer, his self-effacing pronouncement to the bishop felt like circumstantial theater for which he now paid dearly. At the moment of truth he had not been true and North Fork was his daily penance for the sin of obfuscating.

However dull and rain-stricken his gulag, however sluggish and leaden his soul, Father Collins did indeed find the Cross family a challenge to his heart and mind. Forgive me Father for being a sinner. Torn Cross had said, very softly, when the priest first met him at confession. Father Collins couldn't help but observe that the ex-logger who'd come to expiate his sins looked very much like the Mariboro Man at a juncture in his life a bit down the road from the era in the sunswathed advertisements. After all the dusty rides, the campfire brooding and sunset gazing, he'd arrived at a place where his pain went beyond the romantic loneliness of the plains. The windy cracks in his face had blown open to reveal more than the existential suffering the cowboy feels by his coffeepot, and the points of his sideburns terminated steeply in the too-dark abysses of his cheek pits. You're new here, Tom Cross whispered hoarsely, so you're probably the only person in town who doesn't know about my boy.

And what about your boy?

He's quadriplegic. He's nineteen and paralyzed, for the rest of his life he'll never move anymore. And its because of me. It's my fault.

But I heard it was an accident, what happened to your son.

Accidents arent always accidental, if you catch my drift. Father.

I'm not sure I do.

Well the drift is, I caused it.

But why would you do that?

Cuz I hated his guts.

You hated your son.

I have a lot of hate, said Tom Cross.

The Lord has a reason for everything, but this, a father's hate—who can say?

I'm here for answers.

As am 1.

I want to confess.

Go ahead.

I'm evil, said Tom Cross. There's a hole in me. I just go dark a lot of the time. I lock down and then, look out. I'll roll right through you and don't give a damn. Forgive my language, Father.

The man had the eyes of a bird-hunting dog—specifically Don Collins' beloved Prince,  the rangy English pointer of Donny's youth—who has been aprowl in heavy grasslands. In all that strungout, high-wire bird searching, grass seeds lodge beneath the dog's eyelids, where unhappily they try to grow in the medium of his tears.

Mostly you don't want to know me, priest. Because I'd just as soon kill you as look at you. That's how I feel: cold.

You'd want to kill me?.

Not you in particular.

You sound to me like a war veteran.

I never went. I didn't need a war. If there'd been one for me I'd been king of it, though. I probably would have been just what they needed. The guy they were looking for.

I can see that, answered Father Collins.

Before Donny went to seminary, his father gave him a copy of Kipling's "If" and professed that he was loath to give advice but since the moment seemed to call for it he would only say one that there was nothing wrong with being a priest so long as he made himself the kind of priest who served the Church to the best of his abilities and two if he was going to stick it out and actually become a priest he should accept the seriousness of his professions vows and never abridge or demean them. The Kipling poem made Donny fume at its ponderous and repetitive proposition that British conduct made you squire of the world, supplied you with everything in it too, and what could that possibly have to do with the decision to become a priest? Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it/And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son! with the exclamation point heralding a shallow victory and the meaning of manhood remaining indefinite, unless you were willing to take it to mean reserve, mad dogs, and tea.

None of it—his father’s advice, the Kipling poem—was doing him any good now.

Well maybe, he said to Tom Cross, you're here because you want to change.

Do people change?

They do in stories.

Too bad this isn't a story then.

How do you know this isn't a story? Maybe your whole life is just a story—one that God has written for you but within which you must act with volition.

Assign me an act of contrition. Father. Assign me my penance.


Pray as much as you can, I assign. I know that sounds vague and ridiculous to you. But in the sheer beauty of holy words lies succor and salvation. Like carrying water and hewing wood. Aren’t you a hewer of wood, Tom? Strike upon strike of the splitting maul, according to the will of God, until your penance has been realized, achieved, that's what I ask of you. The words themselves, their utterance bringing His light to the world, their utterance lighting your path through a dark wood. So for the rest of your life say as many as you can. A million Hail Marys and a million Our Fathers. That’s what I ask from you.


There’s not a priest in America with a congregation of only 27 families, let alone that such a high percentage would go to confession as often as the residents of North Fork. That jarring distraction of my willing suspension of disbelief reminded me of what I disliked about Guterson last time: he’s too lazy to get the details right. Unless you’re a fan, save your reading time for a writer who respects readers enough to spend the time getting the details right.

Steve Hopkins, November 24, 2003


ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the December 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Lady of the Forest.htm


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