Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The purpose of the discussion topics, questions, and author biography that
follow is to enhance your groups reading of Our Lady of the Forest, a
suspenseful and emotionally charged story of faith from the best-selling author
of Snow Falling on Cedars.
The books 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 narrators stance, shift
throughout the novel? Is the tone of objectivity about the events and characters
What role do sexuality and sexual desire play in this story, particularly
for Tom Cross, Father Collins, and Ann? What is attractive about Ann for Father
Collins (37)? Are beauty, sexual desire, violence, and victimization
interrelated in this novel? If so, how?
Does Guterson expect his readers to believe that Anns encounters with
the Virgin Mary are real? Alternatively, does he place readers in 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?
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 interesting
person than Ann?
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 Anns death, what effect have Anns visions and
their aftermath had on Father Collins? Has he become a better priest, or a wiser
What does the extended passage in which Tom Cross thinks about his family
life, and particularly his son, tell us about him (pp. 94103)? 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?
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. 105)? 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?
What is the connection, if any, between Anns visions and the fact that
she has been repeatedly raped by a drug addict who was obsessed with religion
(see pp.12930)? 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. 131)?
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 is not a factor in the inquiry into her case. What are the
effects, for the reader, of knowing Anns history?
How relevant to her credibility is the fact that Ann wasnt raised as a
Catholic, like Bernadette of 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?
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. 13133, p. 169). The evidence gathered by Carolyn,
however, points to side effects of the allergy medication Ann habitually used.
How does Father Collins respond to Carolyns accusation that "Phenathol is
behind this massive spectacle? This multimillion-dollar film-set church" (p.
316)? Given their conversation, what is the effect of the novels final scene
Does Guterson suggest that there is a place where hysteria and faith
overlap? What are readers to make of the thousands of believers who come to
North Fork to follow Ann to the sight of her visions? What does Guterson suggest
about the psychology of large groups and the behavior of crowds (pp. 13446)?
Why does Carolyn come back to visit North Fork for the opening of the
church (p. 311)? What effect do Anns followers, and the eventual building of
the church, have upon the areas economy?
What is the meaning of the Virgins dire warnings, and of the urgency
of her message to Ann? How should readers interpret this aspect of Anns
vision, as well as Anns fear of Satan?
There are often moments of humor in Our Lady of the Forest; what
kinds of incidents or descriptions are funny? What sort of humor do they
To what extent is Guterson interested in Anns position as a child who
is essentially uncared for and homeless, a victim of her mothers neglect? Is
the novel interested in the social issues that brought Ann to North Fork? Does
Anns obsession with the Virgin Mary reflect her need for a caring mother?
The novel builds to a climactic scene in which Tom Cross confronts Ann in
the church (pp. 296305). 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?
St. Augustine, Confessions; Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don
Juan; Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium; Janice T. Connell, The
Visions of the Children: The Apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Medjugorje; Annie
Dillard, The Living; Mary Gordon, Joan of Arc; Ron Hansen, Mariette
in Ecstasy; Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion; Stephen King, The
Dead Zone; Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven; Blaise Pascal, Pensées;
Mark Salzman, Lying Awake; Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones and
Lucky; Colm Toibin, The Sign of the Cross; Thérèse Taylor, Bernadette
of Lourdes; Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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