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Our Lady of the Forest

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Overview

Ann Holmes seems an unlikely candidate for revelation. She is a sixteen-year-old runaway, who hangs around North Fork picking mushrooms and living in a tent. But one foggy November afternoon, as she forages in the moss of the woods, a vision of the Virgin Mary comes to her. It is up to the new priest, Father Collins, to decide if Ann's sighting is a product of her occasional drug use or a true calling to God. Some locals believe her and others are desperate to believe anything, but either way raw emotion and hope...
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Overview

Ann Holmes seems an unlikely candidate for revelation. She is a sixteen-year-old runaway, who hangs around North Fork picking mushrooms and living in a tent. But one foggy November afternoon, as she forages in the moss of the woods, a vision of the Virgin Mary comes to her. It is up to the new priest, Father Collins, to decide if Ann's sighting is a product of her occasional drug use or a true calling to God. Some locals believe her and others are desperate to believe anything, but either way raw emotion and hope are being exposed in this once-thriving community. And Ann is disturbingly alluring to Father Collins, both spiritually and physically...
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
From the bestselling author of Snow Falling on Cedars comes a darkly humorous contemporary novel of faith and redemption, focusing on an economically depressed community that suddenly becomes the center of hope for the despairing. After teenage runaway and itinerant mushroom picker Anne Holmes has a vision of the Virgin Mary in a nearby forest, her motley crew of friends and colleagues all respond in different ways, ranging from acceptance to utter disbelief. After word of her visions spreads, various miracle seekers gather on the site, throwing the local church and logging companies into a panic.

The author evokes real sympathy for the confused inhabitants of the impoverished town, as each character becomes a symbol for a segment of the world at large: the believer, the cynic, the doubter, and the lost. Even when detailing great sorrow and anguish, Guterson easily sidesteps pessimism to give a compassionate, penetrating view of life's beauty. Stylish, weighty, and shrewd, the narrative is as much a chronicle of our social dilemmas as it is about the doubts and moral uncertainties of our protagonists. A masterfully crafted and moving novel, Our Lady of the Forest will impress and astonish you with its examination of the nature of belief in our unsettled times. Tom Piccirilli

The New York Times
The entire novel is marked by this turn toward the homely and the unnoticed. In his previous works of fiction, Guterson sought the moral high ground, giving us characters tinged with nobility living in places carved out of beauty. His brand of moral fiction, influenced by John Gardner, could at times seem insufferably righteous. Now, in Our Lady of the Forest, he overcomes his virtue problem, writing with more humor than ever before. For the first time, he seems interested in the mess and mud of real life … Guterson's previous do-the-right-thing morality is happily set aside in favor of a humanism that allows his people to lust, to be funny, to fail, to hurt one another. No one here does the right thing; no one knows what the right thing would be. Even the landscape is freed from being perfect. — Claire Dederer
The Washington Post
In the tradition of Franz Werfel's Song of Bernadette and Brian Moore's Cold Heaven, David Guterson has written a tale of what happens to a group of believers and nonbelievers when someone has visions of the Virgin Mary. — Carolyn See
Publishers Weekly
When Ann Holmes starts having visions of the Virgin Mary, the bedraggled teen runaway becomes the last hope for the inhabitants of a dank, economically depressed logging town and the hordes of miracle-seekers who descend on it. In this panoramic, psychologically dense novel, she also becomes a symbol of the intimate intertwining of the sacred and the profane in American life. Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars; East of the Mountains), tells the story from the viewpoint of four lost souls groping for redemption: Ann; Carolyn, an aging, overeducated, cynical drifter who takes Ann under her wing to profit from her growing fame; a local priest wrestling with his doubts about, and lust for, the visionary; and a tormented ex-logger trying to atone for the accident that paralyzed his son. Guterson's evocative prose, pithy dialogue and piercing insights cut through the fog of sin and guilt that shadows these wounded characters like the overcast sky of the Pacific Northwest. And as Ann's visions stimulate a tourism boom and draw the attention of media vultures and a skeptical Catholic Church, Guterson explores larger social themes-the demise of blue-collar America; the ironic symbiosis of religious devotion and commercial exploitation; the replacement of faith in God by faith in psychopharmacology; and the link between the exaltation of women's saintliness and the reality of women's degradation. Searching for the miraculous in the mundane, this ambitious and satisfying work builds vivid characters and trenchant storytelling into a serious and compassionate look at the moral quandaries of modern life. (Oct. 3) Forecast: The gloominess of this uncompromising novel may deflect some readers, but others will be drawn in by its intensity. Look for it to hit bestseller lists, though the 350,000 first printing may be ambitious. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Posters, reading group guides, and a 16-city author tour-Guterson is getting what you would surely expect of a "highly recommended" novel (see review, p. 166). Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Guterson gives readers a contemporary world in which spiritual and ancient concerns are brought to the forefront of awareness. Subsisting as an itinerant mushroom picker in the rain forest of Washington, an abused runaway teen experiences visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who speaks to her and directs her to encourage the building of a shrine in the place of the visions' occurrence. A slightly older young woman, who has no belief in the tenets of any faith, introduces Ann to the local Roman Catholic priest, a man who is both intellectual and spiritual, and who is bothered by his own predilection for impure thoughts about the young seer. News of Ann's visions brings in hordes of believers and the curious, including another local, a middle-aged man who has isolated himself since the accident that paralyzed his teenaged son. Guterson keeps this diverse handful of central characters in constant tension, allowing readers to empathize with all of them while questioning their motives. Teens concerned with matters of faith, belief, the mysteries surrounding unbidden experiences with mythically powerful beings, and the fallible nature of both the best and the worst adults will find a lot here to ponder and discuss. Familiarity with Christianity isn't necessary to accessing this tale, although such a background will add another layer of complexity to readers' considerations of the story.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A young pothead has visions of the Virgin Mary, and all hell breaks loose in this witty fable of faith, greed, purity, and hope from the bestselling author (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994, etc.). She's not exactly St. Bernadette, but Ann Holmes is a decent girl, especially considering her bad start in life. The illegitimate daughter of a teenager, Ann grew up poor and ran away from home at 14 after her mother's boyfriend began raping her. Now she's an itinerant farmworker, residing in a state campground and eking out a living picking wild mushrooms in the rain-soaked forests near North Fork, Washington. A devout Catholic who never goes anywhere without her catechism and rosary, Ann is considered something of an oddball by the other campers, but she makes several friends, including fellow runaway Carolyn Greer, an active doper with none of Ann's religious sensibilities. When Ann confides in Carolyn that she thinks she has seen the Virgin Mary in the forest one morning, Carolyn tells her flat-out that she's either tripping or nuts. They go to see whether the local priest can make any sense of the situation. Father Collins is an unlikely spiritual advisor; he lives in a trailer park, reads Travel & Leisure on the can, and rarely wears a collar. Skeptical but sympathetic, he encourages Ann to bring him reports of these apparitions as they take place. Naturally, word gets out, and Ann soon has a large cult of followers. Their demand that a church be erected on the site of the visions causes problems with the local bishop (whose investigating commission considers Ann deluded) and the local timber company (which owns the forest). It also makes life even worse for Ann, who never wanted to be theleader of anything. Sharp and incisive without a trace of either cynicism or credulity: a clever take on a familiar fable of redemption. First printing of 350,000
From the Publisher
“Outstanding….Our Lady of the Forest is surely one of this year’s best novels.”—The Plain Dealer

“An intense and affecting journey of faith, miracle and humanity.”—The Denver Post

“Like a latter-day Dostoyevsky, Guterson dips into the world of ordinary people….A disturbing novel that challenges us to consider the power and mystery of faith, and what role religious belief should play in an unjust world.”—Chicago Tribune

“Epic….Eccentric, accomplished….[Guterson is] writing with more humor than ever before.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A thoughtful…rumination on faith and human frailty.”—Entertainment Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375432934
  • Publisher: Random House Large Print
  • Publication date: 9/30/2003
  • Pages: 544
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

David Guterson is the author of a collection of short stories, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind; Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense; Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award, the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association Award, and was an international bestseller; and the national bestseller East of the Mountains.

Biography

Like many great writers before him, David Guterson draws on the rich local culture of the Pacific Northwest for inspiration in creating unforgettable characters and settings. Guterson credits many influences on his writing, beginning with his father, Murray Guterson, a distinguished criminal defense lawyer: His father's example taught him first and foremost to choose a career he would love, which also meant making positive contributions to the world.

Guterson was intrigued by the narrative of his father's cases. He often sat in on trials, but never felt the urge to become an attorney. When he started college, after one week in a creative writing class, he decided to become a writer. He eventually studied under Charles Johnson (author of Middle Passage), developing his ideas about the moral function of literature, and concluded that it is the obligation of writers to present moral questions for reflection.

As Guterson honed his writing skills, he investigated a variety of jobs that would afford him the time to practice his craft. He finally chose to become an English teacher, mainly because he wanted to surround himself with great books and authors. He moved to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, teaching at the local high school, writing short stories, and freelancing as a journalist for Sports Illustrated and Harper's magazine.

During his years as a teacher, Guterson discovered another major influence in To Kill a Mockingbird. "No other book had such an enormous impact [on me]" he has said of Harper Lee's splendid Southern classic. "I read it 20 times in 10 years and it never got old, only richer, deeper and more interesting." He admits freely to borrowing many of the novel's structural and thematic elements for his own 1994 tour de force, Snow Falling on Cedars.

Although it was not his first book (he had previously published a collection of short stories and a treatise on home schooling), there is no denying that Snow Falling on Cedars -- ten years in the making and a true labor of love -- put Guterson on the literary map. Set in 1954 on an island off the coast of Washington State, the novel tells the intertwined stories of an interracial love affair and a murder trial that divides a community still haunted by its shameful wartime past. Critics responded ecstatically, calling it "haunting" (L.A. Times), "compelling...heartstopping" (The N.Y. Times Book Review), and "luminous" (Time magazine). The book went on to win the 1995 Pen/Faulkner Award; and the following year, Guterson was named to Granta's list of Best Young American Novelists.

Far from prolific, Guterson writes slowly and with great deliberation, averaging a book every four to five years. Blessed with almost preternatural descriptive skills, he is known as a writer's writer, polishing sentences to pristine perfection and creating stories of elegiac grace. He is disarmingly candid about the difficulties of his craft, claiming that each literary endeavor brings with it a paralyzing fear of failure that slows the process even further. "It doesn't matter who you are, how many awards you've won, how popular you are, or how much critical acclaim you've had," he has said. "When it comes time to sit down and write the next book, you're deathly afraid that you're not up to the task." Fortunately for his many fans, Guterson's misgivings seem totally unfounded!

Good To Know

When he won the 1995 Pen/Faulkner award for Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson quickly recognized the reclusive Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird for his success. He wrote to Lee asking her to come to the award ceremony in Washington, D.C., but being a highly private woman, she didn't attend.

Snow Falling on Cedars was adapted for a 1999 film of the same title, directed by Scott Hicks and starring Ethan Hawke. The movie received an Academy Award nomination for cinematography.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 4, 1956
    2. Place of Birth:
      Seattle, Washington
    1. Education:
      M.A., University of Washington

Read an Excerpt

I
Annunciation
NOVEMBER 10-NOVEMBER 13, 1999

The girl's errand in the forest that day was to gather chanterelle mushrooms in a bucket to sell in town at dusk. According to her own account and the accounts of others in the North Fork Campground who would later be questioned by the diocesan committee, by Father Collins of Saint Joseph's of North Fork, by the bishop's representative, and by reporters covering the purported apparitions--including tabloid journalists who treated the story like a visitation by Martians or the birth of a two-headed infant--the girl left her camp before eight o'clock and walked alone into the woods. She wore a sweatshirt with its hood drawn tight. She didn't speak to others of her intentions. Setting out with no direction in mind, she crossed a maple bottom and a copse of alders, traversed a creek on a rotten log, then climbed a ridge into deep rain forest and began searching for mushrooms in earnest.

As she went the girl ate potato chips and knelt beside rivulets to drink. She swallowed the antihistamine that kept her allergies at bay. Other than looking for mushrooms, she listened for the lonely music of birds and--she confessed this later to Father Collins--stopped twice to masturbate. It was a still day with no rain or fog and no wind stirring branches in the trees, the kind of stillness that stops time, or seems to, for a hiker. The girl paused often to consider it and to acknowledge her aloneness. She prayed the rosary on her knees--it was Wednesday, November tenth, so she said the Glorious Mysteries--before following an elk trail into country she hadn't visited or perhaps didn't recall, a flat grown up with Douglas firs, choked by blowdowns and vine maple draped with witches'-hair. Here she lay in a bed of moss and was seized by a dream that she lay in moss while a shape, a form--a bird of prey, a luminous man--bore down on her from above.

Rising, she found chanterelles buried in the interstices of liverworts and in the shadows of windfalls. She cut them low, brushed them clean and set them carefully in her bucket. For a long time she picked steadily, moving farther into the woods, pleased because it was a rainless day on which she was finding enough mushrooms to justify being there. They drew her on like a spell.

At noon she read from her pocket catechism, then prayed--Give us this day our daily bread--before crossing herself and eating more potato chips and a package of two chocolate donuts. Resting, she heard the note of a thrush, but muted, faint, and distant. Sunlight now filtered through the trees on an angle through the highest branches and she sought out a broad, strong shaft of it, stippled with boiling dust and litterfall, and lay on her back in its luminous warmth, her face turned toward heaven. Again she slept and again she dreamed, this time of a furtive woman in the trees, lit in darkness as though by a spotlight, who exhorted her to rise from the ground and continue her search for chanterelles.

The girl got up and traveled on. She was lost now in an incidental way and the two strange dreams disturbed her. Feeling a vague desire again, she put her hand between her legs, aimlessly, still walking. A cold or flu had hold of her, she thought. Her allergies and asthma seemed heightened too. Her period had started.

The newspapers reported that her name was Ann Holmes, after her maternal grandmother, who died from sepsis and pneumonia a week before Ann was born. Ann and her mother, fifteen at Ann's birth, had lived with Ann's grandfather, a long-haul trucker, a man with complicated gambling debts, in a series of rental homes. The newspapers, though, did not uncover that her mother's boyfriend, a methamphetamine addict, had raped Ann opportunistically beginning when she was fourteen. Afterward he would lie beside her with an expression of antic, contorted suffering etching his hairless long face. Sometimes he cried or apologized, but more often he threatened to kill her.

When Ann was fifteen she took a driver's education class, which she missed only once, on a Friday afternoon, in order to have an abortion. Eight months later she expelled her second fetus into the toilet at a minimart on the heels of a bout with nausea. On her sixteenth birthday she bought a two-door car, dented or crumpled in more than one panel, for three hundred and fifty dollars earned foraging for truffles and chanterelles. The next morning, she drove away.

Ann was diminutive, sparrow-boned, and when she covered her head with her sweatshirt hood it was easy to mistake her for a boy of twelve, fair-skinned and dreamy. She often wheezed asthmatically, sneezed feebly, blew her nose, and coughed against her fist or palm. On most mornings her jeans were wet with the rain or dew transferred from the fronds of ferns and her hands looked pink and raw. She smelled of wood smoke, leaves and rank clothes and had lived for a month in the North Fork Campground in a canvas tent by the river. Others living there told reporters that she'd rigged up a plastic tarp with twine and often sat under it against a log, reading by firelight. Most described her as silent and subdued, though not unpleasant or inspiring unease, not threatening in her estrangement. Those who saw her in the woods that fall--other mushroom gatherers, mostly, but also several elk and deer hunters and once a Stinson Company timber cruiser--were struck by her inconsequence and by the wariness of her eyes in shadow underneath the drawn hood.

A mushroom picker named Carolyn Greer who lived in a van in the North Fork Campground claimed that on an evening in mid-October she had eaten dinner with Ann Holmes, sharing soup, bread and canned peaches and speaking with her of present matters but never of themselves, their histories. Ann had not had much to say. Mostly she stirred her soup pot, listened, and stared at the flames of the fire. She did indicate a concern for her car, whose transmission no longer allowed her to shift gears or to travel anywhere. The car's battery had petered out, and its windshield and windows appeared permanently clouded with an opaque, viscous vapor. It sat beside her canvas tent, gathering fallen cedar needles, both seats loaded with plastic bags, paper sacks, and cardboard boxes stuffed with her belongings.

Carolyn didn't tell the bishop's representative that while the soup was simmering they got high together. Primarily, it was nobody's business. Furthermore, it implicated her too. Carolyn indulged in pot regularly. It surprised her that Ann, after a few tokes, did not become effusive and talkative, like most stoned people around a campfire. Instead she became even more reserved, more hermetic and taciturn. Her face disappeared inside the hood of her sweatshirt. She spoke when spoken to, terse but polite, and poked incessantly at the wood coals. Her only subject was her dead car.

Stranded, Ann had resorted to the county bus, which stopped at a convenience store a half mile from the campground and dropped her in front of the MarketTime in North Fork for eighty-five cents, one way. She paid, the county driver reported, with exact change, sometimes using pennies, and replied in kind when he greeted her. Once he commented on the mushrooms in her bucket, on their number, size, and golden hue, and she gave him some loosely wrapped in newspaper she found at the back of the bus. On the highway, she slept with her head against the window. Frequently she read from a paperback book he eventually discerned was a catechism. When she got off in town she said thank you or good-bye, her hood still drawn around her face.

A half dozen times she accepted a ride from a mushroom and brush picker named Steven Mossberger, who wore a dense beard, Coke-bottle glasses, and a wool cap pulled low on his temples. Seeing her carrying her bucket of chanterelles and walking the road one afternoon, Mossberger rolled down the window of his pick-up, explained that he lived in the campground as she did, that he picked mushrooms just like her, then asked if she wanted a lift. Ann refused him without affront. No, thanks, she said. I'm okay.

The next time he saw her, in late October, he pulled over at dusk in a modest rain and she accepted without hesitating. When he leaned across to push ajar the door, she got in smelling of wet clothes and mushrooms, set the bucket of chanterelles on her lap, and said, It's a little wet out.

Where are you from? Mossberger asked.

Down in Oregon. Not far from the coast.

What's your name?

She gave him her first. He told her his full name. He put his hand out to shake hers and she slipped her hand into his.

He wanted to believe, afterward, that this moment was freighted with spiritual meaning, that in taking her hand he felt the hand of God, and he described it that way to the diocesan committee and to the bishop's representative--a hand that was more than other hands, he said, connecting him with something deeper than his own life--but in fact, he understood privately, what he felt was probably little more than the small thrill a man gets from shaking hands with a woman.

In North Fork, Ann sold her mushrooms to Bob Frame, a mechanic who worked on logging equipment and ran his mushroom business on the side. Garrulous and jocular most of the time, he spoke with an instinctive brevity and disdain to the first journalist who entreated him. The girl's mushrooms, Frame said, were always meticulously field cleaned, and her bucket contained few culls. Only once, on an evening of bitter rain, did she drink the coffee he kept about as a gratuity for his pickers. For a few minutes she sat by the electric heater, sipping from a Styrofoam cup, watching as he layered mushrooms in newspaper and weighed the day's take on a scale. It seemed to him, working close to her, that she hadn't bathed or laundered her clothing in a long time, maybe weeks. He did recall that she kept her pay in a leather pouch worn around her neck, not in the pocket of her jeans. Her shoes, he noted, were well-worn, the sole of one of them separating from the upper so that her damp wool sock showed through. Even in his shed she wore her sweatshirt hood and kept her hands in her sweatshirt pockets.

Frame didn't tell the journalist that she could give no social security number when he requested one for his records. He'd paid her cash and noted nothing in his books of recompense made to an Ann Holmes, and because of that small worrisome omission he was angry with himself for having said anything about Ann Holmes at all. He spoke to no more journalists afterward and proclaimed in town that the media circus perpetually surrounding the visionary was a spectacle he couldn't participate in and still live with himself. In truth it was the specter of an IRS audit that made him afraid to speak of her, though he did tell his wife, swearing her to secrecy, that once when the girl freed her pouch from her sweatshirt she also inadvertently brought forth a necklace bearing a crucifix, which Bob said glowed a brilliant gold.

From Frame's shed Ann carried her bucket to MarketTime and bought a few things each evening. One checker recalled her proclivity for sugar wafers, small cartons of chocolate milk, deli burritos, and Starbursts. No one else remembered very much, except that she always wore her hood and counted her returned change. She asked for the key to the storeroom toilet more often than other customers and used the dish soap in the utility sink to wash her hands afterward. Occasionally she stuffed pennies in the cans for the Injured Loggers' Fund.

In early November, while foraging for chanterelles, two girls from North Fork came across Ann Holmes in the woods east of town. They were middle-school girls, seventh graders, who had employed the ruse of mushrooming all fall to smoke pot in the woods after school. Besides their mushroom buckets and pocketknives, they brought along a bag of marijuana, a small pipe, and matches. Deeply concerned about getting caught, careful girls who giggled for long stretches after smoking even a little pot, they were mindful of the need for chewing gum, eyedrops, and doses of cheap perfume. They were also ravenous, paranoid, and startled by noises in the forest. The singing of a bird could worry them. A plane overhead, a truck on a distant road, froze them in their tracks, wide-eyed.

They'd been stoned that afternoon for a half hour and were finding mushrooms here and there, giggling together in their usual manner, when they saw Ann Holmes perched on a log, watching them with her hands in her pockets and her sweatshirt hood drawn around her cheeks so that her face lay in shadow. At first they thought she was a boy of their own age, an unfamiliar boy not from their town, and even when they came close enough to see that her bucket was brimming with chanterelles, neither was certain that she wasn't a boy, though they inspected her face closely. Both were conscious of being stoned and wondered if it was observable somehow, if their behavior gave them away. They exerted themselves to act normal. Whoa, said one. You scored.

I should have brought along another bucket.

Amazing.

Ass kicking.

Have you ever noticed that bucket rhymes with fuck it?

Crystal.

Excuse me.

God, Crystal.

I'm sure. It rhymes.

God, Crystal. I'm sure.

They giggled now in a truncated manner, trying to stop themselves. They both put hands over their mouths in an effort to hold in laughter. Ann loosened her sweatshirt drawstring, pushed the hood away from her face, and ran her fingers through her hair. Her hair was short, the color of old straw, matted to her head, unkempt. The others could see now that Ann was a girl, which was not as good as a strange boy in the woods to talk about at school. Are you like from where? one asked.

I'm from the campground.

You were like born there?

They laughed again, covering their mouths. One of them nearly fell over.

You guys are baked, Ann said.

We're not baked we're totally hammered.

I'm like fried. Totally.

I'm like ripped.

Me, too.

They sat cross-legged on the forest floor. The one named Crystal pulled out a deck of cards. The other produced the bag of marijuana. Let's get baked, she suggested. Maybe a little, Ann replied.

They smoked dope, played Crazy Eights, ate a rope of red licorice, some Dots and a box of Red Hots. Ann asked if they believed in Jesus. Uh oh, said one. Are you a Jesus freak?

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

I

Annunciation

NOVEMBER 10-NOVEMBER 13, 1999

The girl's errand in the forest that day was to gather chanterelle mushrooms in a bucket to sell in town at dusk. According to her own account and the accounts of others in the North Fork Campground who would later be questioned by the diocesan committee, by Father Collins of Saint Joseph's of North Fork, by the bishop's representative, and by reporters covering the purported apparitions--including tabloid journalists who treated the story like a visitation by Martians or the birth of a two-headed infant--the girl left her camp before eight o'clock and walked alone into the woods. She wore a sweatshirt with its hood drawn tight. She didn't speak to others of her intentions. Setting out with no direction in mind, she crossed a maple bottom and a copse of alders, traversed a creek on a rotten log, then climbed a ridge into deep rain forest and began searching for mushrooms in earnest.

As she went the girl ate potato chips and knelt beside rivulets to drink. She swallowed the antihistamine that kept her allergies at bay. Other than looking for mushrooms, she listened for the lonely music of birds and--she confessed this later to Father Collins--stopped twice to masturbate. It was a still day with no rain or fog and no wind stirring branches in the trees, the kind of stillness that stops time, or seems to, for a hiker. The girl paused often to consider it and to acknowledge her aloneness. She prayed the rosary on her knees--it was Wednesday, November tenth, so she said the Glorious Mysteries--before following an elk trail into country she hadn't visited or perhaps didn't recall, a flat grown up with Douglas firs,choked by blowdowns and vine maple draped with witches'-hair. Here she lay in a bed of moss and was seized by a dream that she lay in moss while a shape, a form--a bird of prey, a luminous man--bore down on her from above.

Rising, she found chanterelles buried in the interstices of liverworts and in the shadows of windfalls. She cut them low, brushed them clean and set them carefully in her bucket. For a long time she picked steadily, moving farther into the woods, pleased because it was a rainless day on which she was finding enough mushrooms to justify being there. They drew her on like a spell.

At noon she read from her pocket catechism, then prayed--Give us this day our daily bread--before crossing herself and eating more potato chips and a package of two chocolate donuts. Resting, she heard the note of a thrush, but muted, faint, and distant. Sunlight now filtered through the trees on an angle through the highest branches and she sought out a broad, strong shaft of it, stippled with boiling dust and litterfall, and lay on her back in its luminous warmth, her face turned toward heaven. Again she slept and again she dreamed, this time of a furtive woman in the trees, lit in darkness as though by a spotlight, who exhorted her to rise from the ground and continue her search for chanterelles.

The girl got up and traveled on. She was lost now in an incidental way and the two strange dreams disturbed her. Feeling a vague desire again, she put her hand between her legs, aimlessly, still walking. A cold or flu had hold of her, she thought. Her allergies and asthma seemed heightened too. Her period had started.

The newspapers reported that her name was Ann Holmes, after her maternal grandmother, who died from sepsis and pneumonia a week before Ann was born. Ann and her mother, fifteen at Ann's birth, had lived with Ann's grandfather, a long-haul trucker, a man with complicated gambling debts, in a series of rental homes. The newspapers, though, did not uncover that her mother's boyfriend, a methamphetamine addict, had raped Ann opportunistically beginning when she was fourteen. Afterward he would lie beside her with an expression of antic, contorted suffering etching his hairless long face. Sometimes he cried or apologized, but more often he threatened to kill her.

When Ann was fifteen she took a driver's education class, which she missed only once, on a Friday afternoon, in order to have an abortion. Eight months later she expelled her second fetus into the toilet at a minimart on the heels of a bout with nausea. On her sixteenth birthday she bought a two-door car, dented or crumpled in more than one panel, for three hundred and fifty dollars earned foraging for truffles and chanterelles. The next morning, she drove away.

Ann was diminutive, sparrow-boned, and when she covered her head with her sweatshirt hood it was easy to mistake her for a boy of twelve, fair-skinned and dreamy. She often wheezed asthmatically, sneezed feebly, blew her nose, and coughed against her fist or palm. On most mornings her jeans were wet with the rain or dew transferred from the fronds of ferns and her hands looked pink and raw. She smelled of wood smoke, leaves and rank clothes and had lived for a month in the North Fork Campground in a canvas tent by the river. Others living there told reporters that she'd rigged up a plastic tarp with twine and often sat under it against a log, reading by firelight. Most described her as silent and subdued, though not unpleasant or inspiring unease, not threatening in her estrangement. Those who saw her in the woods that fall--other mushroom gatherers, mostly, but also several elk and deer hunters and once a Stinson Company timber cruiser--were struck by her inconsequence and by the wariness of her eyes in shadow underneath the drawn hood.

A mushroom picker named Carolyn Greer who lived in a van in the North Fork Campground claimed that on an evening in mid-October she had eaten dinner with Ann Holmes, sharing soup, bread and canned peaches and speaking with her of present matters but never of themselves, their histories. Ann had not had much to say. Mostly she stirred her soup pot, listened, and stared at the flames of the fire. She did indicate a concern for her car, whose transmission no longer allowed her to shift gears or to travel anywhere. The car's battery had petered out, and its windshield and windows appeared permanently clouded with an opaque, viscous vapor. It sat beside her canvas tent, gathering fallen cedar needles, both seats loaded with plastic bags, paper sacks, and cardboard boxes stuffed with her belongings.

Carolyn didn't tell the bishop's representative that while the soup was simmering they got high together. Primarily, it was nobody's business. Furthermore, it implicated her too. Carolyn indulged in pot regularly. It surprised her that Ann, after a few tokes, did not become effusive and talkative, like most stoned people around a campfire. Instead she became even more reserved, more hermetic and taciturn. Her face disappeared inside the hood of her sweatshirt. She spoke when spoken to, terse but polite, and poked incessantly at the wood coals. Her only subject was her dead car.

Stranded, Ann had resorted to the county bus, which stopped at a convenience store a half mile from the campground and dropped her in front of the MarketTime in North Fork for eighty-five cents, one way. She paid, the county driver reported, with exact change, sometimes using pennies, and replied in kind when he greeted her. Once he commented on the mushrooms in her bucket, on their number, size, and golden hue, and she gave him some loosely wrapped in newspaper she found at the back of the bus. On the highway, she slept with her head against the window. Frequently she read from a paperback book he eventually discerned was a catechism. When she got off in town she said thank you or good-bye, her hood still drawn around her face.

A half dozen times she accepted a ride from a mushroom and brush picker named Steven Mossberger, who wore a dense beard, Coke-bottle glasses, and a wool cap pulled low on his temples. Seeing her carrying her bucket of chanterelles and walking the road one afternoon, Mossberger rolled down the window of his pick-up, explained that he lived in the campground as she did, that he picked mushrooms just like her, then asked if she wanted a lift. Ann refused him without affront. No, thanks, she said. I'm okay.

The next time he saw her, in late October, he pulled over at dusk in a modest rain and she accepted without hesitating. When he leaned across to push ajar the door, she got in smelling of wet clothes and mushrooms, set the bucket of chanterelles on her lap, and said, It's a little wet out.

Where are you from? Mossberger asked.

Down in Oregon. Not far from the coast.

What's your name?

She gave him her first. He told her his full name. He put his hand out to shake hers and she slipped her hand into his.

He wanted to believe, afterward, that this moment was freighted with spiritual meaning, that in taking her hand he felt the hand of God, and he described it that way to the diocesan committee and to the bishop's representative--a hand that was more than other hands, he said, connecting him with something deeper than his own life--but in fact, he understood privately, what he felt was probably little more than the small thrill a man gets from shaking hands with a woman.

In North Fork, Ann sold her mushrooms to Bob Frame, a mechanic who worked on logging equipment and ran his mushroom business on the side. Garrulous and jocular most of the time, he spoke with an instinctive brevity and disdain to the first journalist who entreated him. The girl's mushrooms, Frame said, were always meticulously field cleaned, and her bucket contained few culls. Only once, on an evening of bitter rain, did she drink the coffee he kept about as a gratuity for his pickers. For a few minutes she sat by the electric heater, sipping from a Styrofoam cup, watching as he layered mushrooms in newspaper and weighed the day's take on a scale. It seemed to him, working close to her, that she hadn't bathed or laundered her clothing in a long time, maybe weeks. He did recall that she kept her pay in a leather pouch worn around her neck, not in the pocket of her jeans. Her shoes, he noted, were well-worn, the sole of one of them separating from the upper so that her damp wool sock showed through. Even in his shed she wore her sweatshirt hood and kept her hands in her sweatshirt pockets.

Frame didn't tell the journalist that she could give no social security number when he requested one for his records. He'd paid her cash and noted nothing in his books of recompense made to an Ann Holmes, and because of that small worrisome omission he was angry with himself for having said anything about Ann Holmes at all. He spoke to no more journalists afterward and proclaimed in town that the media circus perpetually surrounding the visionary was a spectacle he couldn't participate in and still live with himself. In truth it was the specter of an IRS audit that made him afraid to speak of her, though he did tell his wife, swearing her to secrecy, that once when the girl freed her pouch from her sweatshirt she also inadvertently brought forth a necklace bearing a crucifix, which Bob said glowed a brilliant gold.

From Frame's shed Ann carried her bucket to MarketTime and bought a few things each evening. One checker recalled her proclivity for sugar wafers, small cartons of chocolate milk, deli burritos, and Starbursts. No one else remembered very much, except that she always wore her hood and counted her returned change. She asked for the key to the storeroom toilet more often than other customers and used the dish soap in the utility sink to wash her hands afterward. Occasionally she stuffed pennies in the cans for the Injured Loggers' Fund.

In early November, while foraging for chanterelles, two girls from North Fork came across Ann Holmes in the woods east of town. They were middle-school girls, seventh graders, who had employed the ruse of mushrooming all fall to smoke pot in the woods after school. Besides their mushroom buckets and pocketknives, they brought along a bag of marijuana, a small pipe, and matches. Deeply concerned about getting caught, careful girls who giggled for long stretches after smoking even a little pot, they were mindful of the need for chewing gum, eyedrops, and doses of cheap perfume. They were also ravenous, paranoid, and startled by noises in the forest. The singing of a bird could worry them. A plane overhead, a truck on a distant road, froze them in their tracks, wide-eyed.

They'd been stoned that afternoon for a half hour and were finding mushrooms here and there, giggling together in their usual manner, when they saw Ann Holmes perched on a log, watching them with her hands in her pockets and her sweatshirt hood drawn around her cheeks so that her face lay in shadow. At first they thought she was a boy of their own age, an unfamiliar boy not from their town, and even when they came close enough to see that her bucket was brimming with chanterelles, neither was certain that she wasn't a boy, though they inspected her face closely. Both were conscious of being stoned and wondered if it was observable somehow, if their behavior gave them away. They exerted themselves to act normal. Whoa, said one. You scored.

I should have brought along another bucket.

Amazing.

Ass kicking.

Have you ever noticed that bucket rhymes with fuck it?

Crystal.

Excuse me.

God, Crystal.

I'm sure. It rhymes.

God, Crystal. I'm sure.

They giggled now in a truncated manner, trying to stop themselves. They both put hands over their mouths in an effort to hold in laughter. Ann loosened her sweatshirt drawstring, pushed the hood away from her face, and ran her fingers through her hair. Her hair was short, the color of old straw, matted to her head, unkempt. The others could see now that Ann was a girl, which was not as good as a strange boy in the woods to talk about at school. Are you like from where? one asked.

I'm from the campground.

You were like born there?

They laughed again, covering their mouths. One of them nearly fell over.

You guys are baked, Ann said.

We're not baked we're totally hammered.

I'm like fried. Totally.

I'm like ripped.

Me, too.

They sat cross-legged on the forest floor. The one named Crystal pulled out a deck of cards. The other produced the bag of marijuana. Let's get baked, she suggested. Maybe a little, Ann replied.

They smoked dope, played Crazy Eights, ate a rope of red licorice, some Dots and a box of Red Hots. Ann asked if they believed in Jesus. Uh oh, said one. Are you a Jesus freak?


From the Hardcover edition.

Copyright© 2003 by David Guterson
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Reading Group Guide

1. The book’s opening echoes the tone of official reportage, using “the girl” instead of naming Ann Holmes. Elsewhere in the narrative Ann is called “the visionary.” Why? Does this create a sense of distance from her? Does the narrative tone of voice, as well as the narrator’s stance, shift throughout the novel? Is the tone of objectivity about the events and characters maintained?

2. What role do sexuality and sexual desire play in this story, particularly for Tom Cross, Father Collins, and Ann? What attracts Father Collins to Ann [p. 38]? Are beauty, sexual desire, violence, and victimization interrelated in this novel? If so, how?

3. Does Guterson expect his readers to believe that Ann’s encounters with the Virgin Mary are real? Does he seem sympathetic to the position of Father Collins, who is skeptical and yet open-minded, or of Carolyn, who is entirely analytical and cynical about the visions? Is there a character with whom readers are most likely to identify? Who is it?

4. What kind of person is Carolyn Greer? Is she an opportunist, an intellectual, a cynic, an actor, a thief? If she is talented and intelligent, why is she living in a campground in North Fork? Is she a more intriguing character than Ann?

5. Why did Father Collins decide to become a priest? Does the priesthood solve his personal dilemmas? Does he have the necessary qualities of leadership to be a priest? A year after Ann’s death, what effect have Ann’s visions and their aftermath had on Father Collins? Has he become a better priest or a wiser person?

6. What does the extended passage in which Tom Cross thinks about his family life, and particularly his son, tell us about him [pp. 96–105]? Is Tom Cross responsible for the accident that paralyzed his son? With his anger, desperation, and self-loathing, how dangerous is he? Is there anything admirable or positive about him? How does he change?

7. How does Guterson evoke the unique locale of the Pacific Northwest, with its local economy that pits loggers against “jogging-shoed, tree-hugging, latte lovers” [p. 107]? In what ways does he evoke the feeling of life in a rainy, foggy place? How important is the setting to the story, in terms of the local economy, weather, and landscape?

8. Is there any connection between Ann’s visions and the fact that she has been repeatedly raped by a drug addict who was obsessed with religion [pp. 131–32]? Does the novel suggest that her devotion to the Virgin results from a need to cleanse herself of her own past and to make amends for the abortion she had [p. 133]?

9. The narrator shares with readers the information that Ann is a victim of violent sexual abuse; this fact is not made known, however, to Father Collins or to the public, and so it is not a factor in the inquiry into her case. What are the effects on the reader of knowing Ann’s history?

10. How relevant to her credibility is the fact that Ann wasn’t raised as a Catholic, like Bernadette at Lourdes or the children at Fátima? Do her followers care? Is this a story about Catholicism or about a larger phenomenon in America today? What is Guterson suggesting about religious faith or about the need for it?

11. Father Collins and Father Butler know that Ann has used psilocybin mushrooms, and this leads them to suspect that her visions are hallucinogenic flashbacks [pp. 285–87]. The evidence gathered by Carolyn, however, points to side effects of the allergy medication Ann habitually used. How does Father Collins respond to Carolyn’s outrage when she realizes that “Phenathol’s behind this massive spectacle. This multimillion-dollar film-set church” [p. 321]? Given their conversation, what is the effect of the novel’s final scene [pp. 322–23]?

12. Does Guterson suggest that there is a point at which hysteria and faith overlap? What are readers to make of the thousands of believers who come to North Fork to follow Ann to the site of her visions? What does Guterson suggest about the psychology of large groups and the behavior of crowds [pp. 136–48]?

13. Why does Carolyn come back to visit North Fork for the opening of the church [p. 316]? What effect do Ann’s followers, and the eventual building of the church, have upon the area’s economy?

14. What is the meaning of the Virgin’s dire warnings and of the urgency of her message to Ann? How should readers interpret this aspect of Ann’s vision, as well as Ann’s fear of Satan?

15. There are often moments of humor in Our Lady of the Forest. What incidents or descriptions are particularly funny? What sort of humor do they exemplify?

16. To what extent does Guterson emphasize Ann’s position as a child who is essentially uncared for and homeless, a victim of her mother’s neglect? How important are the social issues that brought Ann to North Fork in the novel? Does Ann’s obsession with the Virgin Mary reflect her need for a caring mother?

17. The novel builds to a climactic scene in which Tom Cross confronts Ann in the church [pp. 300–10]. What are the dynamics of the scene? What does Tom Cross want from Ann, and how close to violence is he? Why does Carolyn intervene as she does?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 22 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2006

    Donna, a reviewer, 8/22/06

    I read the other reviews with interest. I bought this book because I loved Snow Falling on Cedars and East of the Mountains. I admit that Our Lady of the Forest surprised me, and made me somewhat uncomfortable at times. Nevertheless, I finished it, and I found that I've spent some time thinking about the book, its characters and events a lot since then. Sitting in my comfortable living room with a cup of tea and time to spare makes me a poor judge of people who find themselves in the position that many of the people in the book. Except for Carolyn who could have chosen a very different life considering her education and intelligence, these people were caught up in situations I've thankfully never had to face. The book is not an easy read - true, but I think the author deserves a lot of credit for tackling a setting that many of us will never have to deal with, and doing it without a judgemental and condescending note. I think he captured the media hype and mass reactions beautifully, as well as showing how situations build upon themselves creating potential disasters and/or successes. All in all, I say well done.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2005

    atmospheric with location

    I was mesmerized by this the context of this novel. I could actually feel the damp, dank and dark forest and picture the destitude 'mushroom pickers' and their life styles. I think it is one of the most unique stories I have ever read and it stuck with me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2012

    Worst Guterson novel

    Ilove his works,but this novel is awful

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  • Posted March 19, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Not What I Was Hoping For

    I was hoping this novel would take a serious look at religion via the extreme case of a woman who sees visions, but unfortunately the book seems mired in the details of its individual characters to ever stretch beyond them, to ever say something important about religion and what it means to believe or not to believe.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2010

    This book belongs in the Humor section

    All the reviews I have read seem to take this as a serious book. I read it as a comical description of faith and the apparitions that people have turned into ways to make money. How can anybody actually believe that the Virgin Mary comes down from wherever and can cure warts, smoking, and even arthritis. Thousands of "believers" come to boost the economy of a dying community and the pocket books of the "faithful" seers. Come on people. Lighten up and enjoy the book for its humor.

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  • Posted December 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Almost couldn't see beyond the forest for the trees

    This book didn't have that many pages, but it was a very long and drawn out read. The story has an intriguing concept, but at times it can be boring. Ann was a interesting character and I felt bad for her, but the people around her were less sympathetic characters to follow. The priest who has fantasies about her, Ann's best friend who wants the perks that come with fame, and the logger with an mean streak and abusive nature. This is not David Guterson's worst book, but its not as good as Snow Falling on Cedars. If you can drudge through it, its an ok novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2008

    Our lady of the really boring forest

    Ok, so the beginning is not to bad. I kept reading it,and waiting for something to happen. After awhile I stopped waiting and simply put the book on my shelf. I am now going to donate it to the library.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2008

    Don't read this if you are depressed!

    The sadness in this novel overwhelmed me. I cared about Ann, so kept reading, hoping for some light, some redemption. And I kept hoping until the end. There was none. No hope, just incredibly sad people. The thing that struck me the most was the way everyone USED Ann. Is that what Catholics do? What everyone does? Innocently or otherwise? Does the building of a wonderful church justify the neglect and abuse of a young girl, no matter how ill? Maybe I just want to be insulated from the most pathetic realities of the world. I know they are out there, but it is very painful to read about them. Maybe that's the challenge here.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2005

    I don't think so!

    I struggled through this book, hoping against hope that it would gain momentum....but no! The sexual innuendos in themselves were gratuitous and unnecessary. Would I recommend this book to anyone? I DON'T THINK SO!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2005

    HOW COULD ANYONE LIKE THIS BOOK!!!!!!!!!

    I struggled so hard to read this book.From the very beginning to the end not one page interested me at all.And the story is so boring.I dont recommend this book to anyone.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2005

    This book was annoying

    I usually read the first few pages before deciding to buy a book. The first few pages of this book are truly well written and kept my interest. By the end of the book, I no longer cared what happened to any of them. Just wanted to finish it. Once I was done, I stared at the book for about five minutes wondering what other things I could have done with my life instead of reading this....like watching my toenails grow or paint dry perhaps.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2004

    Not Worth the Time or Money

    This book is well written but that's the only positive thing I can say. Except for the protagonist, who is a rather bland innocent, none of the characters are very likeable. And I thought I'd scream if I had to read about one more masturbation!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2004

    What's with all the masturbating???

    I could have really enjoyed the book a lot more if 3 out of the 4 main characters weren't pre-occupied with masturbating. What did that add to the story?? I didn't need to know about Tom's wanting to smell certain parts of a woman's anatomy either. Makes me wonder if the author has a problem or if he thinks sex helps his ratings. The story could have stood well on it's own without all that.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2004

    Never read this book!

    I found this book incredibly boring and pointless. It goes nowhere and has no climax. Don't read it and waste your time and energy on it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2004

    Taking that second look..

    Let's face it, folks, life ain't pretty. One can easily figure that out after the first few pages of Guterson's newest, and somewhat disturbing, novel. I agree, there are several parts in it that make the reader cringe [did he really write that.. is that really.. could he mean.. !!!] and that's what makes this book so great. There are cracks in life that are downright dirty and Guterson dives right in, ripping them open for all to see. In the end [hopefully] the reader will be able to realize that all the characters are, after all, human and prone to mistakes and it takes real courage to learn from these mistakes and change yourself. Like my mother always says, 'try it, you might like it'.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2004

    I initially agreed with Donna (below)

    I thought several times about closing the book - I found it disturbing - and foul...but I wanted to stick with it (I like to finish what I start) and I'm glad I did...life is messy and ugly...but there can often be beauty in the mess and ugliness...by the the end I was, once again, drawn to the mysteries of God and how God can and does use the ugly in this life for beauty. Worth finishing...the disturbing parts in the beginning make the redemption in the end all the more satisfying...and Carolyn is just funny.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2003

    Couldn't get through it...

    I've made the mistake in the past of reading books that didn't grab me from the start for the sheer sake of finishing them. I decided 'never again'. I got through the first few pages of this book and found it to be crude and disgusting what with Ann's constant... I can't even say it. I promptly shut the book and will be returning it to the library unread. Don't waste your time or money.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2003

    Haunting & Rewarding

    Guterson creates a dark tale with a gloomy setting and in-depth characters. Match that with some rich sub-plots and once again, Guterson has a wonderful novel thats filled with intrigue and wit. Guterson has a way of taking real life issues and spinning them into a mesmerizing read. Deep and touching.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2003

    Great story-great characters

    Our Lady of the Forest is the moving story of a teenage runaway who lives in a campground and supports herself by picking mushrooms in the forest. She's had a troubled past and she's been know to indulge in drug use. One day while picking mushrooms in the forest she sees an apparition of the Virgin Mary. I thought that the characters were well drawn and I came to care about all of them. I also found the ending to be perfect for the story. I would recommend this book. I truly enjoyed it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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