Ann Holmes is a 16-year-old runaway with a frail body bent over with burdens. She was raped by her mother's boyfriend; is a chronic drug-user who lives on the edges of society; and has to fight asthma and multiple allergies with Phenathol, a heavy duty medication. She earns money picking mushrooms. Her life swerves when she has a vision of the Virgin Mary in the woods near North Fork, a depressed logging town in Washington State. "Give your hearts to the Precious Son and take refuge within His wounds" is Mary's message. Ann's best friend Carolyn Greer, a jaded grad-school dropout, sees this happening as an opportunity to advance her own needs and dreams. She comes up with the idea of raising money to create a shrine on the apparition site.
The word goes out and soon thousands are converging on the small town with high expectations and hopes for being healed or spiritually transformed. Among the pilgrims are pious Catholics, penitents, desperate townsfolk, and curiosity-seeking campers. Ann remains convinced that her experience was genuine and that it had nothing to do with her power or gifts. Father Collins, a young priest who privately battles with the rigors of celibacy and the demands of faith, is fascinated by his encounters with this young visionary who yearns for purity and keeps asking him to baptize her. Another priest arrives to investigate the miracle but already has made up his mind about the Virgin Mary's so-called appearance.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurial citizens of North Fork try to sell the pilgrims bottled water, souvenirs, and religious trinkets. Representatives of the lumber company complain about the damage being done to the woods. Tom Cross, a self-destructive alcoholic who blames himself for the tragedy that caused his 17-year old son to be paralyzed, hopes that Ann can usher in a miracle cure for his boy.
In Willa Cather's novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, one of the characters say: "Miracles . . . seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always." In this intriguing novel, David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) explores the persistence of faith in modern times and the limits to human reason reflected by the reported sightings of Mary. It is interesting that Ann's certitude shines a light on the more cerebral beliefs of the two priests. The real miracle, Guterson demonstrates, is not Mary's appearance but the outpouring of spiritual yearning that was there but unexpressed in all the characters the good, the bad, the wounded, and the venal.