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Our Lady of the Forest

January 21st, 2004 · 1 Comment

I’ve waited a long time to read this new novel, the latest from David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars. When I went to reserve the book at the library, I was already number 88. Thanks to the 22 or so copies in circulation in our county, it only took 3 months for me to get the book. Last time I looked there were 111 people still behind me. So I’m not alone in my waiting…

Our Lady of the Forest is Guterson’s first new novel in the four years since we moved to Bainbridge Island, where he lives. I think, if I am remembering correctly, that Our Lady of the Forest had been originally set to be published before fall of 2003, maybe even fall of 2002. I’ve read his other fiction works, and I wanted to read this one too.

Why do I read David Guterson? Many reasons. I read him because I am interested in following him as a writer. I’ve read all of his major published works and, as both a reader and a writer, I enjoy seeing how he has changed and grown. His first published novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, was an intricate work of historical fiction, ranging from the what-ifs of adulthood to the passions of adolescence, describing the effects of racism and interracial romance in community, so powerful that it was made into a movie and included on many high school reading lists. It was an interesting start to his career as a novelist, and I’ve been curious to see where he would go from there. East of the Mountains , his second, seemed more linear, a simpler solitary journey through the main character’s life as well as eastern Washington’s countryside. What would Guterson write next?

I’m also interested in him because we share the same community. Not only is he a Northwest writer, but he and I both live on this same piece of land called Bainbridge Island. He is a part of my community. I’m a part of his. The Gutersons have given a lot to the island and are very involved in their hometown. David Guterson helped found Fields End , an organization for writers. I’ve seen him around town, taking his shift, flipping pancakes or burgers in front of the grocery store, at community fundraisers. He writes about the island and he cares about the island.

Our Lady of the Forest also received excellent reviews. A big front page story in the local paper, of course. The Seattle Times gave it much acclaim Guterson crafts a spellbinding tale about a mushroom forager’s visions, along with a big interview , and even counted it among the years best books . My curiousity grew, and I couldn’t wait for the library to tell me my copy had come…

This book, like his other novels, takes place in the Northwest, this time in a logging community named “North Forks”. Guterson as always does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the land, describing the forests in detail, not only the plants but also the people who live there, characters from motel owners to mushroom gatherers. I remember that East of the Mountains was rich with such description, like a painting, and Our Lady of the Forest doesn’t disappoint here either. It’s as if the author is in love with the land; he has an affectionate eye.

After all my anticipation and waiting though, I struggled getting through the beginning of the book. Perhaps it is that I don’t read many novels nowadays. Or I get impatient. But I had a hard time getting attached to the characters. Perhaps this is just me. The main characters include a teenage girl runaway/ mushroom-picker who receives visions of the Virgin Mary in the forest, a priest who has many struggles in his own mind, and only one thing on his mind when he sees this young woman, and an angry logger who wants to destroy others around him, confessing he is filled with hate. I had a hard time caring about these characters, or even others surrounding them. Maybe that was just me though. These characters have suffered, but the way that their suffering is described is void of overt grief or pain – in one case I remember clearly it is described with much distance, the way a reporter might write it. Perhaps that makes it even more powerful. But to me, I felt I wanted emotional reactions, feelings, struggles that came from these experiences. I understood the characters but I didn’t care for them. I couldn’t connect with them emotionally.

I also struggled with the style. It was too ornate for me. Almost like looking at an intricately carved piece of furniture with all kinds of detail. I felt distracted, sent into different directions. Or it was like sitting down to enjoy a fabulous wine with dinner, but feeling that everything was so rich and flavorful it detracted from the whole experience. Like listening to music with too many background sounds. Guterson includes all kinds of pop culture references, puns and little jokes. I imagine he had a lot of fun writing them; I don’t remember either of his other works having such details and dialogue humor. He also has intellectual discussions between characters and historical references, although at times these felt to me more like an NPR interlude: a lot of research revealed or reported. I wondered if it was really necessary for one character to sing The Beatles “Lady Madonna” or for the priest to joke about Fruit of the Loom underwear. I felt there was also a lot of sexual tension and detail, especially in the beginning of the novel. While all these aspects combined to make a colorful novel, even a fun and fast ride, it felt like a painting that was too busy, too much in the periphery for the eye to rest and focus on the center.

But I probably had these strong feelings about focus because the novel addresses questions of faith, crucial ones in my life. One of the main characters receives visions and hears voices, making prophecies and proclamations. The other characters have to choose what to believe about these experiences. Healings and revelations occur. The supernatural is made manifest. And this too was another reason why I wanted to read Our Lady of the Forest. I am fascinated by faith, whether in fiction or reality, and I think that the choice to believe in a Being beyond ourselves is one worth exploring, yes, even worth pursuing with passion.

So it was with great eagerness, anticipation and passion that I sat down with my long-awaited copy of Our Lady of the Forest. I don’t think I can write much more about my opinion of this book without either giving away a large part of the plot or going into a lengthy description of my personal beliefs. I will say that after a while, to me the novel becomes clearer and the noise and peripheral distractions die down a bit. Faith becomes a more central focus. Guterson’s descriptions of what might ensue after such visions seem quite credible, and he can well conjure up the scenes of the crowds enchanted by the Marian miracles. It’s an enticing story, one that I stayed up devouring one night until 3 am, too impatient to read it in pieces. I really wanted to know what would happen.

What did happen? Well, I will say that it wasn’t what I had thought would happen or all that I had hoped. But I’d still choose to read the book again. For all the same reasons.

Tags: books

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 M. Banta // Aug 3, 2004 at 6:23 pm

    I, too, had a hard time “getting into” the novel until I started to see all of the characters as Guterson’s (and my) struggle with faith. Collectively, they represented every phase I have gone through regarding my belief in God and, I suspect, every phase Guterson has gone through as well. I noticed, though, that when the book kept me in an existential state too long, I wanted a passage that would give me hope. I wanted faith to “save” me. I wanted Tommy to be physically healed (more so than the spiritual healing Guterson gave to Tom, his father). I moved through the book, slowly, searching for that hope. I suppose in the end it was provided, but there was still an element of doubt as seen through Carolyn’s dialogue with Father Collins. I guess that doubt never subsides for some of us.