Sweet cracker sandwich, this book is so depressing that it should come with a trial pack of Zoloft. The entire narrative takes on the tone of the damp, dark, mossy Oregonian forest in which it's set. It has a claustrophobic and chilly feel and frankly, has one of the most unsympathetic cast of characters ever. I'm not saying it's not good; it's certainly serviceable and has an interesting premise, but it gave me the feeling that if I ever had the misfortune of finding myself in North Fork, Oregon, surrounded by these people, I'd want to put the town in my rearview mirror as fast as I possibly could.
Ann Holmes is a teenage runaway who left home after being raped continually by her mother's boyfriend. She lives in a campsite and picks and sells wild mushrooms for money. One day during her picking, she is overcome by a vision of the Blessed Mother, who instructs her to return and to deliver certain messages to mankind. It's all familiar to a reader like me, who went to Catholic school for eighteen years and is well-versed in the stories of Fatima and Lourdes. At any rate, Ann is soon a celebrity on the Marian devotion circuit, and she's essentially taken advantage of by everyone: the campground neighbor who sees Ann as her moneymaking ticket to a winter in Mexico; the thousands of fanatics who throng to the woods and beg Ann for favors and intentions; the bumbling priest of the miserly local parish who tries, ineffectually, to seduce her. Woven throughout is the story of a pathetic community that has fallen victim to a sharp decline in the logging industry (the derogatory references to liberal treehuggers and the spotted owl abound), along with the tale of Tom Cross, a former logger whose life has disintegrated after his son was left a quadriplegic in a logging accident for which Tom blames himself - he was trying to teach his son how to be a man, not a pussy or a faggot. Tom and his fellow townspeople are essentially Northwestern rednecks: they hate women, Jews, gays, Indians, Asians, and pretty much anyone who isn't a white male quaffing draft beer at one of the local taverns. It's with Cross that Guterson gets sloppy; while I understand using one person to illustrate a human microcosm of the town, it becomes tiresome reading about Tom's preoccupation with sex and thoughts of revenge on everyone who has somehow wronged him.
Back to the larger picture. Ann continues to have visions and insists that a church is to be built on the site, but she's nothing but a pawn to the people around her, and the story concludes with a morose ending. All in all, a decent effort, but it would be vastly improved by enthusiastic pruning of the Cross story and a seventy percent reduction in the sexual themes, allusions and metaphors. (Reading about a guy eating a hamburger with much chewing and "labial noise" put me off my appetite for several hours; I also prefer books that don't reference the scent of a woman's nethers more times than I can count on one hand.)