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A question of faith

Stewart Oksenhorn

David Guterson’s third novel, “Our Lady of the Forest,” came amid a swirl of religious themes finding their way into popular culture: Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” was on top of the best-seller lists, and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was about to begin stirring up controversy. And all of these works came on the heels of 9/11, an event that put religion in the headlines.

But Guterson makes little of how his book, about a young woman who sees visions of the Virgin Mary in the soggy woods of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, fits in any movement of religious-themed works. For one, the 47-year-old writer began gathering his thoughts for “Our Lady of the Forest” in late 1997 and early ’98, soon after finishing his second novel, “East of the Mountains.” Further, Guterson doesn’t see any great surge in religious thinking, the three aforementioned works notwithstanding.

“We have these occasional moments,” said Guterson by phone, while taking the 35-minute ferry ride from his home on Washington’s Bainbridge Island to Seattle. “There’s a little resurgence since 9/11. But I don’t think there’s anything going on. There’s no trend.”

Even if there were an awakening of religious thought, Guterson would hardly be a likely figure at the center of it. Born to Jewish parents who were barely observant, Guterson is an agnostic with no church affiliation, though he has studied some Buddhism. His first book, winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award, was “Snow Falling on Cedars,” a literate courtroom drama that examined the racial rifts between white Americans and Japanese Americans in the wake of World War II. “East of the Mountains,” about an aging surgeon journeying to the eastern Washington of his youth, is similarly devoid of religious ideas.

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Guterson’s decision to explore the issues of “Our Lady of the Forest” ” directly religious topics of faith, revelation, suffering and the Catholic Church ” was a haphazard one. “I finished ‘East of the Mountains’ and was casting around for ideas for my next book,” he said. “One of the things I do when I’m casting around like that is go to libraries and bookstores and just browse ” nonfiction usually ” and see what catches my eye.”

Guterson’s eye happened upon an account of the apparition of the Virgin Mary that famously appeared to Saint Bernadette in Lourdes, France, in the 19th century. As he found his interest piqued and deepening, the writer began researching the noted Marian apparitions, and the lesser-known ones in the United States, of which Guterson says there are many.

Guterson began writing his tale. At the center of “Our Lady of the Forest” is Ann Holmes who, like an unusual number of those claiming to see Mother Mary, is a young woman, poor and in ill health. While out mushrooming in the woods of North Fork, Ann has the first of a series of visions of the Virgin Mother. As word spreads of the sightings, the faithful congregate and turn North Fork, a depressed logging village, into a boomtown. The gathered flock is a combination of true believers and those looking to exploit Ann and her visions, who get the bulk of Guterson’s attention. Ann obediently follows the commandment of the Virgin ” to build a church in the woods ” and as she does, her health deteriorates and she is ultimately discredited.

The book’s portrayal of faith and organized religion is hardly comforting to the faithful. The novel ends with a group of believers standing in the cold, straining to hear the dedication of the new church over the sounds of rainfall and static. “The pilgrims looked up at the sky without hope,” writes Guterson in the book’s final paragraph.

Still, Guterson contends there is more ambiguity than pessimism to his views of religion and its practice. “I would not use that word” ” pessimism ” “to describe it. I like the word ambiguity,” he said. “You do see a cynicism in the nexus between faith and contemporary culture. And regarding that nexus, and the way faith has been co-opted and exploited ” I feel saddened and cynical about that exploitation.”

Of that memorable final scene in “Our Lady of the Forest,” Guterson says there is more than just soaked Catholics. “It’s a metaphor for our condition as human beings,” he said. “It’s existential, and honest about where we are as humans.” Guterson points out that despite the setting, the pilgrims in the book cling to their faith, which he sees as a hopeful note. “There is something we can do ” we can implore the Virgin Mary.”

The book, he concludes, “is not an argument for nihilism.”

Guterson, in fact, does not see “Our Lady of the Forest” as an argument for or against anything. “It doesn’t push people toward conclusions. It’s meant to open up an exploration for the reader to examine these questions with me,” he said.

One of the more provocative issues raised by the book is why Father Butler, an old, entrenched priest sent by the diocese to investigate Ann’s vision, is so disinclined to believe. The point seems to be that revelations, miracles ” the stuff of hard-core religious belief ” are relics of the past. And perhaps that meaningful religious practice is soon to follow. That’s a point that Guterson appears to have considered ” and doesn’t take sides against.

“With the growth of science over the past 300 years, the Age of Reason, religion has been on its heels,” he said. “The dogma of religion has been paralyzed by the advances of science. For a religion to integrate itself, and to do it honestly, means ripping out some very basic, fundamental tenets.”

David Guterson appears in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s final Winter Words event of the season on Saturday, April 3, at 5:30 p.m. at Paepcke Auditorium.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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