David Guterson’s 2003 novel, Our Lady of the Forest, calls vision, belief, reality and hallucination into question. It examines mendacity and power structures of the Catholic Church, which are mobilized by an itinerant mushroom-picking seer’s visions of Mother Mary.
Many of you have read Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. I shall not attempt to place Guterson in a genre, other than to say that he is an author of the contemporary American West (and possibly of other times and places, but I do not pretend to have read all of or summarize his work, only to give some anchor to those who entirely unfamiliar with it.) It is not fantasy or science fiction, but the Marian visions of the ill, impoverished teenage seer, Ann Holmes, do–as is typical of Marian visions–bring apocalyptic warnings. Guterson’s Mary warns, as did the Mary of Lourdes, of evil that will befall a humanity that has ceased to attend to her son’s teachings.
Mary’s dire warnings are accompanied by the nuanced and multi-vocal concerns about the environment. A checkered character, Ann’s spokesperson Carolyn Greer spars with representatives of a large lumber company. Greer is a complex and interesting character. She is knowledgeable about the devastation of heedless deforestation. She reduces the arguments of the lumber company reps to an empty chorus, when she vividly describes their unethical logging practices. The lumber company’s concern is only with the bottom line, and Carolyn’s caustic critique is spot on. Carolyn’s desire to use the forest as a pilgrimage path and site are, however, seemingly motivated by the same concern. The novel is set in the forests of the Northwest, in Oregon, where loggers joke of spotted owl pie and resent environmentalists who threaten their livelihoods.
The most richly drawn and conflicted character of the novel is the young and kind, but neither youthful nor particularly vital, priest, Father Collins. Father Collins is able to entertain the possibility of the miraculous transcendent and skepticism simultaneously. He is aware that he has fled to the priesthood out of fear of sexual rejection, and suffers from sexual longings, which inspire a mild, resigned guilt. He has an intellectually rigorous knowledge of the teachings and arguments of the Catholic Church through the centuries. Father Butler, the “inquisitor,” is sent by and representing the official Catholic Church, and even antiquated, anti-feminist doctrine. The debate between Father Butler and Father Collins will not only interest Roman Catholics, but anyone interested in the institutional religious doctrine versus religion as practiced on the ground. Father Butler’s name is, I suspect, a well-chosen play on words: he is a lackey of official, unquestioning, religion. His character, though drawn with some amusing quirks, never becomes multi-dimensional.
Pilgrimage is a practice of religion “on the ground” that has grown in popularity worldwide since the 1980s. Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists are today’s pilgrims. The atheist pilgrim with a personal mission to fulfill, is represented by Donald Sutherland, in a recent movie, The Way.
Despite normal human flaws, Father Collins is a likable character, concerned with the well-being of his parishioners, if shirking, now and then, interactions with the most difficult of them. Father Collins never shirks his duty for long, and despite self-doubts, is cast as a man eminently suitable for the priesthood.
Guterson addresses the questions of bodily practice–the physical aspects–of religion well. The “Inquisitor” focuses intently on Ann’s bodily habits, especially use of alcohol or drugs, from antihistamines to mushrooms, to determine whether she is a fit vehicle for visions of Mary. Her recent conversion and unbaptized state are less important concerns to Butler. Those pleading with Ann for help, plead for cures to physical ailments. The one complex exception to those pleading for a cure is that of a troubled logger who pleads for his son’s paralysis to be reversed. Tom is one of the novel’s central characters, so I will not reveal the outcome of his dire family and financial situation here.
Wrestling with one of the ultimate existential questions, “What is reality?” is difficult. Guterson acquits himself well in his very readable novel, which I recommend. Because of the philosophical nature of the debate at the heart of the novel, it is somewhat unsatisfying. But it was doubtless Guterson’s intent to leave his readers with more questions than answers.