A voice crying in the wilderness

A teenage runaway fears no one will hear the message, but hordes flock to her

This summer, less than a mile from my house, an image of the Virgin Mary appeared in the third-story window of a hospital. The population of Milton, Mass., doubled one weekend when 25,000 devotees came from across the country to sing, pray, leave alms, and debate the image's message for a sinful world. Stories of "Lourdes in Boston" ran in newspapers around the world. Thousands of Web pages celebrated the sighting. Unable to conduct its business, the hospital covered the window with a tarp during work hours. A month later, the archdiocese proclaimed the image was not, in fact, a miraculous appearance of the Virgin, but chemical deposits inside a double-pane window.

Sightings of the Virgin Mary, the subject of David Guterson's new novel, are not part of my religious tradition. My old house doesn't even have double-pane windows. But as someone who believes in spiritual healing, I know what it's like to live with a faith easily mocked by a skeptical world. And so I opened "Our Lady of the Forest" ready to endure another sophisticated bit of literary pity for primitives who insist against all material evidence that something lies beyond.

This isn't what the novel delivers, however. Guterson, an agnostic raised by Jewish parents, explores a complex and challenging set of questions without a hint of condescension in what is essentially a tragicomedy about the persistence of faith. Set in a depressed logging town in Washington State, "Our Lady of the Forest" describes a week in which Ann Holmes, a sexually abused 16-year-old runaway, sees visions of the Virgin Mary while picking mushrooms in the woods.

Nothing about Ann makes her seem a particularly likely recipient for messages from Jesus' mother. She's a chronic drug user who lives on the edge of the law in a broken-down car. She's never been baptized, never joined a church, and never received any religious training beyond what she's managed to pick up by reading a Bible from a Christian Science Reading Room and a catechism from a Roman Catholic church. But through the narcotic haze and horrific memories of sexual abuse - graphically recounted here - Ann nurses an insatiable thirst for purity.

Her visions start around the same time she begins suffering from a racking viral infection which she treats with powerful asthma medication. Her only friend is a cynical grad-school dropout, a fellow mushroom picker, who patiently explains to Ann the side effects of prolonged hunger and drug use. She takes a maternal interest in this lost girl, hoping initially to protect her and then, when temptation strikes, to exploit her.

Ann remains wholly convinced of the reality of her vision and the urgency of the Virgin's message. Others soon hear of her experience, and word spreads exponentially from fellow campers to desperate townspeople to the World Wide Web. The crowd terrifies Ann, but her weak, androgynous appearance serves as a blank slate on which to project whatever belief or doubt inspires.

Much of the dark comedy in the novel stems from Guterson's unflinching portrayal of the hordes who descend upon this dispirited town. He has a good ear for the absurd mingling of piety and trivia, ecstasy and selfishness, the prayers of penitents and the bumper stickers of devotion ("Don't Tailgate - God Is Watching"). Tromping through the forest with Ann, her followers bicker about trash disposal, brag about visiting other miracle sites, complain about their shoes, and praise God. As the crowd swells into the thousands, a cottage industry of trinkets, pamphlets, and postcards grows overnight to satisfy the full spectrum of devotion from devout Catholics to UFO hobbyists.

Two men among the crowd develop into particularly striking portrayals of faith. The first is Father Collins, a young priest to whom Ann appeals for help in satisfying the Virgin's demands. Acerbic and literate, more wry than pious, Collins has sought refuge in the priesthood as a way of avoiding the messy complications of real life. Having retreated into his books and platitudes in this backwater town, he's entirely unprepared for his attraction to Ann with her desperate physical and spiritual needs. The skeptical investigation he must conduct is riddled with a confusion of sexual and romantic desire, paternal concern, and undeniable awe at the passion of her certainty.

Among his parishioners is an unemployed logger named Tom Cross, a violent, frustrated man who's ruined his own life. He blames himself for an accident that left his son paralyzed, the climax of 17 years of horrendous verbal abuse. And his wife has recently thrown him out, completing his transformation into an object of pity in a town of self-destructive losers.

Guterson's exploration of Tom's meanness runs parallel with a searing diagnosis of the agony of his soul. Here is a man crushed beneath his own cruelty and selfishness who nevertheless retains a dogged suspicion that only God can save him.

Despite the Roman Catholic flavor of Ann's vision, the dimensions of this compelling novel are catholic in the larger sense. Still, the enormous audience that enjoyed Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars" (1994) will find this a far more unsettling book. Agnostics will resonate to Guterson's ambivalence, and atheists may feel pricked by his insight into humanity's thirst for transcendence, but the Christian reading groups that embraced the spirituality of, say, Leif Enger's "Peace Like a River" (2001) will be reluctant to take on a story that contains such disturbing scenes of violence and sexual abuse. This is no "Peace Like a River," or any peace at all, really. But it captures a tempest of faith boiling with the desire for communion.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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