by David Guterson
The conceit of setting-as-character is all too familiar in literature of the Pacific Northwest, as book after book favors us with automobile tires on wet pavement, precipitation upon trees, and so forth. It is not innately ill-conceived, this personification; our region's heaviness, applied judiciously and pointedly, can deepen a story. Applied heavily and bluntly, the device is not only somewhat painful, it can perversely illumine the fact that the characters-as-characters have been clumsily deployed into the setting-as-character, and that the whole mess is just sitting there getting wet.
In David Guterson's Our Lady of the Forest, Ann, an abused teenage runaway eking out an existence gathering mushrooms in our great state's rainforest, is visited by something she judges to be the Virgin Mary. The descriptions of this waiflike womanchild (and her nasal drip) ensconced in her hooded sweatshirt are equaled only by the descriptions of the similarly drippy and shadowed landscape; these two are called upon to symbolize innocence and guilt, the known and the unknowable, life and death, and so forth. The Virgin is kind enough to specify to Ann (and to the reader) that she will return four—yes, four—more times. Thus are we assured of ample opportunity for more depiction of the Oregon grape and salal on the peripatetic journeys "into the dank-smelling forest with its moss-veiled vine maples, nursery logs, devil's club coverts, and fern grottoes.... to the dark and uneasy grove where Ann's apparitions had ensued"—where, moreover, "[a]ll was green and good and godly. All was God's evidence, God's sign. Except what belonged to Satan."
After Ann's awful upbringing is dispatched, she becomes a pleading symbol of piety, portentously growing paler, more ethereal, and more runny-nosed. Three more figures emerge: a mothering drifter out to take care of and take advantage of Ann; a local priest tortured by his faith, his past, and his corporeal desires; and a disempowered former logger, surname of Cross, upon whom is hung the burden of the rage and shame of human cruelty.
The backstories of this trinity are interspersed with the trips into the relentlessly dank and mossy woods; all is terrifically morally freighted as Ann becomes the repository for the priest's lust, the drifter's greed and envy, and Cross' seemingly impossible salvation. Guterson indulges in explorations of (among other philosophical and theological issues) the ethics of the timber industry, the xenophobia and misogyny of stiffed blue-collar males, and the ostensible sex appeal of the visionary ("The girl was pornographic in ecstasy, a male projection of female religious passion, as if God has entered her.... like the limp wilted models in magazines who have been arrayed so as to call attention to the sexual allure in the poverty of their bodies"). Moments of brutality spike out of the narrative: the recounting of Ann's repeated rape by her mother's boyfriend, the crippling of Cross' son during a barrage of horrifying verbal abuse. These scenes, while affecting, are undermined by their seemingly deliberate intent to shock.
Unshockingly, the arrival on the scene of a clerical higher-up sent to investigate Ann's apparitions occasions the trundling out of arguments about the Catholic Church, wherein the priest upholds liberal and feminist principles while lusting pruriently after Ann in his heart. The acknowledged but still leaden symbolism of the mildewy church carpets plays a role here as well. Then there's the legion of followers who flock; these pilgrims seem to be objects of authorial scorn—gullible rubes caught in a cult of their own devising—but, weirdly, their petitions are meant nonetheless to move us.
This is not a short novel, and the reader may be forgiven for hoping that an act of God will intercede in the onward trek through the five visitations; despite the crowd of dramatis personae and their moral exigencies, a sense of urgency is notably lacking. The question of whether the visions are in some way legitimate is an interesting paradox that is treated rather patly. The novel's climax brings all four main characters together for a sort of spiritual showdown, and the denouement ensures that the messages inscribed on them throughout the book are baldly reiterated. The lapstraking of their stories never feels more than arbitrary, as each is trotted out in turn to illustrate the weaknesses of humankind while the narrative—vituperative outbursts notwithstanding—drones on sermonlike. Despite its pretensions to be a sort of modern passion play, Our Lady of the Forest ends up a pointless, sodden pile.