Lost in the Woods

David Guterson’s Our Lady of the Forest opens with a solitary girl wandering deep into the misty, moss-carpeted woods of Washington state to pick chanterelle mushrooms. The lush and silent setting makes you anticipate a mystery or enchantment waiting there among the alders, and Ann Holmes, a young runaway, finds both when her mushroom picking is suddenly interrupted by the first of several visits from the Virgin Mary.

News of the Marian encounters spreads quickly, courtesy of gossip and Internet chat rooms, and soon people from all over the country descend on the depressed logging town of North Fork. Ann is catapulted into unwilling celebrity, becoming "the visionary," the skinny, asthmatic pivot around which North Fork’s dramas shift and turn.

Guterson sidesteps the issue of whether Ann’s sightings are real, feverish hallucinations, or drug-induced flashbacks. He focuses, instead, on how this supposed miracle affects the people around her. She fires the imagination of Father Collins, the town’s sensitive New Age priest. He lives in a trailer reading J.P. Donleavy, struggling with his inappropriate desire for the young visionary, as well as with his own faith, and wondering how to help his community with its sorrows and crises.

Situating herself as Ann’s "disciple," cynical and savvy Carolyn Greer, another mushroomer, jumps at the chance to churn religion into profit. While she dreams of scamming enough money to escape rain-soaked North Fork to winter in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Carolyn obsesses about her weight and envies Ann’s androgynous allure.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2004
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