Guterson's 'Forest': celestial metaphor

October 05, 2003|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Our Lady of the Forest, by David Guterson. Knopf. 318 pages. $25.95.

Rain, dankness and rot so powerfully constitute the central imagery of David Guterson's latest novel that they become a central theme. The book chronicles the waiflike self and fleshier followers of Ann Holmes, from Nov. 10, 1999, to November 12, 2000, while she is visited -- or convincingly believes she is -- by the Blessed Virgin in the rainforests of Fort Fork, Wash. Most of the followers are unwashed. Some find the stench sexy.

If you begin the book during a long rainy spell, no shower will wash its effluvium off you. Your very eyelashes will hang wetly over mildewing pages. But if you end the novel on a sunny day, you may well take it to the beach to start over.

The situations and characters -- even the cartoonlike ones -- are that interesting. Besides, who can resist the thrill of discovery: New novel retells oldest Biblical stories, and with extra twists! Ann Holmes, runaway teen, freelance mushroom picker and unintended mystic, is no virgin, having been raped by her stepfather, of course, a conscienceless hippie who physically resembles the Christ of medieval art.

But her trip to potential sainthood effectually begins with the conception of his child (later aborted). As her menstrual periods dwindle and stop during her growing inability or refusal to eat, and as she grows more and more luminescent, more Madonna-like, in her anorexia, her ability to speak for and as the Mother Herself wings upward.

Though the Magdalene (no, not thus named) works the local bar and many unsaintly mothers populate the novel of post-logging-boom Northern Oregon, Guterson makes Judas and God the Unloving Father the book's second and third leads.

Judas is Carolyn, a cynical young latter-day Beat wannabe. Doubting like Thomas, she first tries to dissuade Ann from going public with her vision and later, for "silver," acts as its chief carnival barker -- to Ann's detriment and the community's gain.

Vengeful, jealous Yahweh surfaces in just about every father in the book. Most notable are the decent but misguided dad who belt-whips his son, and the son himself, who grows up to be the young priest who serves as the book's male lead. It is the priest's misfortune and fortune to become Ann's confessor as well as the Peter on whom the new community church is built. The priest "sacrifices" Ann by failing to get help when she is obviously dying.

Counterbalancing the priest is Tom, perhaps the most interesting and loathsome character in the novel. Tom is a misogynist who resists Magdalene even while making use of her body and who insists, in the face of everybody's contrary knowledge, that he deliberately sacrificed his son while the logging team was falling a giant tree.

Falling. That's what I learned from this book. It's the logger's word for cutting down a tree. 'Felling' a tree sounds like an awkward archaism after reading Our Lady of the Forest. I also learned not to invest in Patagonia-brand clothing if I plan to survive a visit to logging territory. And I learned that a book that makes great airport, rainy day and rental-cottage reading can deal provocatively with issues as heavy as faith, how to love fellow humans, the nature of the godhead and the problem of evil.

Clarinda Harriss is on sabbatical from her job as chair of Towson University's English department to work on her short fiction and two new collections of poems. She has published three volumes of poetry. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc.

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