Monday, September 10, 2007

place in fiction

In my MFA program, I wrote a thesis on the use of place as a literary device in stories. Place can play an important role in stories, sometimes almost as great a role as the characters that populate a story. It can be a character. I was reminded of this in reading an article titled "The Mushroom Hunters," by Burkhard Bilger, in the New Yorker (8/20/07). The rain soaked forest habitat of the secretive mushrooms makes for just such a character.

Picking for the market began in about the Seventies, in the National Forests of Washington and Oregon, and was mostly done by locals who kept their patches secret. However, mushroom hunting exploded beginning in the Nineties. The pickers in the referenced article lived in a roughshod, primitive campground, and were roughly divided into ethnic groups—Hmong, Mien, Cambodian, Laotian, Mexican, and Caucasian. Most of the pickers were Asian. Matsutake mushrooms may sell for up to one hundred and sixty dollars a pound, and though a highly experienced picker might find up to seventy-five pounds in a day, an experienced Cambodian couple together averaged less than twenty-five pounds a day. In six weeks they earned ten thousand dollars. The work can be arduous and pickers search for the mushrooms from sunup till sundown. One needs a sort of sixth sense, because the mushrooms usually lie hidden beneath a carpet of pine duff on the forest floor. Pickers are very clannish and each group is suspicious of any other group. The atmosphere in the camps can be a bit like the old Forty-Niner gold miners, with guns fired in the air during evening celebrations in camp. Pickers also fire guns in the deep forest to keep up a contact with each other and avoid getting lost. There's a story hidden in the sort of place described, and waiting to be populated with other characters.

David Guterson populated such a mushroom world with his own unique characters, in his novel, "Our Lady of the Forest," published in 2003. A frail young woman ekes out a marginal living hunting mushrooms in a National Forest in Washington. She has visions of the Virgin Mary appear to her in the deep forest, and when word gets out, people drive from all over seeking to witness the apparitions. Crowds follow her through the forest on her daily workday. A priest is dispatched by the Catholic Church to investigate the authenticity of the apparitions. It was an engrossing story and showed the power of place in the fictional world that Guterson constructed.

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