In this issue:In the past month, and quite by happenstance, this reviewer has read (or in one case, listened to) three novels set in northern forests. Herewith, some musings thereon:
Light on Snow
by Anita Shreve
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 305 pp, 2004 (widely-spaced print)
This brief novel is a beautifully-told tale of love, grief, and redemption. Narrated by Nicky, a woman in her thirties, it is a tale of an event that happened just before Christmas, the year she was twelve.
Nicky and her father, Robert, are exactly half of what was once a family. Nicky’s mother and baby sister, Clara, were killed in an automobile accident when Nicky was ten. Desolate in his grief, Robert gave up his job (as an architect) in New York, sold the family home in Westchester County, and headed off to the north, driving aimlessly until he could drive no longer, which brought them to the little town of Shepherd, NH.
Wanting only to be left alone, Robert bought a house in the woods, up an all but impassible dirt road, put Nicky in the local school, and began producing handmade furniture. He is a man so damaged that he shuns almost all human contact.
Into this situation come an abandoned baby, and later on, the baby’s mother. The complications that ensue force both Robert and Nicky to grow and change. It is, in a sense, a coming-of-age not just for Nicky, but also for her father, who emerges as a wise and compassionate man.
There is a satisfying but brief moment at the novel’s end in which we realize that Robert has begun to heal enough to offer a helping hand to a neighbor. There is never any question that the resourceful, articulate Nicky will grow into a healthy adulthood.
For all its emotion-packed events, Light on Snow is not a soap opera. Its carefully crafted structure avoids mawkish overstatement and sentimentality. Ms. Shreve’s take on the small, New England town seems just about perfect, from Mr. Sweetser at the hardware store to the various town officials who must deal with the problem of finding the baby’s parents. Even the weather rings true: Ms. Shreve uses the blanketing snow as both metaphor and catalyst for her story.
Shreve’s main characters are all victims, Nicky and her father of a capricious accident, and Charlotte, the baby’s mother, of her love for a real stinker of a boyfriend. The interactions among these three damaged people have dimension and believability.
In all, this is a book well worth the read.
Our Lady of the Forest
by David Guterson, 2003
Published by Random House/audio, 8 cassettes
Read by Blair Brown
(Alfred A. Knopf, publisher of print version)
When my mother had a stroke that destroyed her ability to read, I remember suggesting to her that she try books on tape. “It’s not the same thing,” she said. “The process is different. I don’t want somebody else’s voice between my mind and the author.”
During some uninterrupted driving time in the past few weeks, I have been listening to the tape of David Guterson’s Our Lady of the Forest, and I find myself wondering if, perhaps, my mother was right. The tape is read by Blair Brown, an actress of considerable accomplishments who does a masterful job with this book, but I suspect I might have liked the story itself better had I read it instead of listening to it. Then again, the book is so bleak that perhaps Ms. Brown’s interpretation helped it. I have heard that Guterson, for some unfathomable reason, did not use quotation marks around his characters’ speech in the print version. The book is heavy on dialogue, so I can imagine that the missing punctuation might have caused confusion. The recorded version spared me that, at least.
Set in a small town devastated when its only industry, logging, moved on to other places, the story has about it a bitter reek of anger, deceit, despair and disillusion. It begins with an apparently miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary, who appears to an asthmatic, teenage misfit named Ann Holmes. She has run away from an abusive home, and now lives in a tent in a forest campground, sustaining herself by harvesting and selling mushrooms that she picks in the forest. She is a drug user (“magic mushrooms” and marijuana) who has recently found religion and abstained from the drugs. Her religion, although she remains unbaptized, is a kind of self-taught, bastardized Catholicism.
One day while picking mushrooms, she has what she perceives to be a vision of the Virgin Mary (whom she calls “Mother Mary”). The vision tells her that she must build a church on the very spot where Mary appeared. When Ann reports this to her friend, Carolyn, she innocently starts a whole series of events. Carolyn, a complete cynic, decides to become Ann’s public relations person. Soon the word has spread, and Carolyn discovers that she can bilk the gathering crowds for donations to build the church – which, of course, Carolyn (by now referring to herself as Ann’s disciple), appropriates. There is a growing audience for each ensuing visitation, although no one but Ann ever sees the vision. Soon the crowds decide that Ann can cure the sick and work miracles.
Enter the local priest, a young man who secretly lusts after Ann. Father Collins is torn between attraction to (and pity for) Ann, and skepticism about the vision. The bishop sends another priest to look into Ann’s claims, and he is soundly convinced that Ann is having flashbacks from prior drug use. Father Collins, a gentle but ineffectual man, is not sure of this, or, apparently, of anything else.
One of his parishioners, Tom Cross, is a former logger who caused an accident that paralyzed his own son. He is a true reprobate, a guilt-ridden, vicious alcoholic, and an abusive misogynist who slowly seizes on the idea that Ann may indeed save him from himself.
Ann, who self-medicates for her asthma, refuses to eat during the days of the visitations. She is also suffering from a terrible cold, and in the end, dies of an asthma attack while praying over Tom in Father Collins’ church.
The denouement tells us that Carolyn has spent a lovely winter in Mexico on the proceeds of the stolen offerings; that the new church has indeed been built; and that Tom Cross seems to be on the path back to some sort of humanity.
I am not at all sure of the author’s message, here: does he want us to believe that some good has come out of all the chaos, misunderstandings and downright dishonesty of so many people? Does he intend to tell us that God works in mysterious ways? That God is cruel to those he loves? That there is no God, or if there is, that he doesn’t give a damn about us?
Guterson is a master of prose, and there are many lovely descriptions and keenly observed moments in this novel. Having read a couple of Mr. Guterson’s other books (most notably, Snow on Cedars), I approached this recording with great anticipation. But the writing doesn’t, somehow, make up for the sour tone of the story.
A senior note: if you’re driving your grandchildren anywhere, don’t try to listen to this tape in the car. It is definitely not for young ears.
2005 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb