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Author’s third novel addresses existential ideas

David Guterson is not interested in the zeitgeist of the present or chronicling a particular moment in time.

“What do we do while we are here?” he says. “And does anything matter• Those are the questions that obsess me as a person, and they are given voice in my work.”

“Our Lady of the Forest,” Guterson’s third novel, addresses metaphysical and existential ideas via a storytelling convention with an historical precedent: Marian apparitions. Drawing from accounts of Lourdes, Fatima and sites in the United States, he’s taken an unexploited storytelling genre and developed a fictional account of what happens when a young girl claims to have been visited by the Virgin Mary.

“The inherent question in the novel is: Are these Marian apparitions credible• Are they real?” says Guterson, the author of “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “East of the Mountains.” “And in posing that question, you automatically pose a secondary or corollary question: What is the nature of reality• When we say something is real and say we actually saw something, what do we mean by that• And at some level, there’s a set of questions in this novel that are phenomenological. … The questions are contemporary in the sense that the more we learn about the brain, the more we see that questions about neurology, questions about reality, often coincide somewhere.”

Ann Holmes is a 16-year-old runaway who gathers chanterelle mushrooms to survive in a remote Pacific Northwest forest. Her life changes when she sees a ball of light “hovering silently between two trees, also as a bright floating orb about the size of a basketball,” containing the Virgin Mary. The second time Ann the sees light, she’s spoken to by “Our Lady,” who asks her to return and start a ministry. Later, Ann is told to build a church in the forest.

When word of the Marian encounter spreads via the Internet, a circus-like atmosphere springs up overnight, and thousands of the faithful quickly converge on the small, economically depressed logging town.

Known for thoroughly researching his stories, Guterson decided not to visit Conyers, Ga.; Bayside, Queens in New York; or Necedah, Wis., locales where Marian apparitions have been reported. He wanted the book to have a particular American tone and context, but limited his research to reading in order to maintain a degree of distance.

“A person can come away from this novel and say there’s something surreal about the way all of those apparition themes are recorded by the novelist,” Guterson says. “There are some elements that are absurdist in the tone and description. I think if I had done more historical and cultural hands-on research, that tone wouldn’t be there. That tone derives from a particular angle of the imagination. I think I was better off imagining these events as opposed to experiencing them and reporting on them.”

Part of Guterson’s attraction to the phenomenon of Marian apparitions stems from his desire as a novelist to get outside his experiences and write about people who have different views and beliefs.

The subject matter, he says, seduced him intellectually long before the started to write about it.

“I think most people are psychologically and emotionally and spiritually dissatisfied with the notion of the divine that’s been offered to us in the West,” Guterson says. “And that’s because that notion of the divine is utterly devoid of the feminine. We all know at some level of deep disturbance that the God that’s been put before us is incomplete, that this image of Jehovah as this wrathful male who has a son, or this genderless Holy Spirit, doesn’t square with what we sense at some level of the unconscious, which is that no concept of the divine can be complete without a feminine component. That’s why there is, worldwide, an enormously popular cult of the Virgin Mary.”

Guterson populates “Our Lady of the Forest” with a number of characters who approach Ann’s revelation with varying degrees of self-interest:

  • Carolyn Greer is a fellow mushroom gatherer who becomes Ann’s spokeswoman, a P.T. Barnum-like figure who uses Ann for her own purposes.

  • Tom Cross, the father of son with a disability who bears “a highly appropriate surname,” is a hapless logger who is “alienated and lonely and strange” and brings a dark, troubling male aspect to the story.

  • And Father Donald Collins is the local priest who acts as Ann’s protector while wrestling with his own issues of faith.

    When Guterson showed the novel to his younger sister, she couldn’t believe he was tackling the subject. The child of liberal, reformed Jewish parents, he grew up in an family that promoted secular humanism and general agnosticism. He remains firmly agnostic today.

    But being agnostic, the author says, shouldn’t be confused with disbelief.

    “No one knows, but plenty of people believe,” he says. ” Gnosis is about knowledge, and technically being agnostic is someone who says they don’t know. I think everyone should say they don’t know. … Nobody knows, so we are all agnostic at some level.

    “Like most human beings,” Guterson adds, “I find myself confused and ambivalent and uncertain and spiritually seeking endlessly. And not really with answers, just with questions. I think that sense of ambivalence and confusion — I think you can describe it as philosophical and religious honesty. I think that perspective infuses the novel.”

    Seeing is believing


    “Our Lady of the Forest,” David Guterson’s third novel, is about a young girl who says she’s seen the Virgin Mary in a remote forest in the Pacific Northwest. According to the author, the story was inspired by other apparition sites, especially in the United States.

    Guterson says there are a number of conventions that usually hold true at the major sightings, including Fatima in France, Lourdes in Portugal, and Guadeloupe in Mexico.

    “An apparition unfolds somewhere where there’s been some travail,” he says. “And usually the seer is a young person, most often a girl. The seer is always doubted, and even doubts herself, and is sort of inclined not to speak of it. But Mary always tells her to utter the message.”

    Guterson says the Catholic Church then investigates, most of the time casting doubt on the veracity of the event.

    “Then, there’s some kind of miracle,” he says, “and there’s massive grassroots upsurge of hysterical assent. And finally the church is forced to come to grips with this support, and accommodate the reality of it. That’s an existing story, that’s a historical story. It happened at Lourdes, it happened at Fatima, it happened elsewhere. I was simply retelling that story.”

    Here are some locations in the United States where people have claimed to see the Virgin Mary.

  • Conyers, Ga. Since 1990, Nancy Fowler claims to have been visited by the Virgin Mary numerous times. The Archdiocese of Atlanta has remained neutral, but there are still regular visitors to Fowler’s farm who insist it the visitations are real. Details: www.ourlovingmother.org , www.conyers.org .

  • Necedah, Wis. Mary Van Hoof, a Hungarian immigrant, claims to have been visited by the Virgin Mary on Nov. 12, 1949. She said she was given messages about mind control in schools, Catholic priests in the United States who were communist spies, and a space ship that was coming to take away the faithful. The Catholic Church has disavowed Hoof’s claims, but a shrine still exists. Details: www.unitypublishing.com/Apparitions/Necedah.html .

  • Bayside, Queens, N.Y. Veronica Lueken claimed to have been visited by St. Theresa, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ beginning in 1968. In 1986, the Archdiocese of Brooklyn gave a negative judgment on the claims of Lueken, who died in 1995. Supporters still promote messages received by Lueken. Details: www.roses.org .

  • Pittsburgh. There have been few reported sightings of the Virgin Mary in Pittsburgh. In April 2001, images said to resemble her were reported on the attic wall of a house in Brookline. For a few nights, as many as 1,000 people visited the home along Pioneer Avenue before police asked the family to stop opening their house to the public. The Diocese of Pittsburgh declined to authenticate the sightings.


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