Mother of Rain, about hardscrabble life in the hills of Tennessee in the 1930s and ’40s, is the most intriguing read I’ve experienced in years.
Full disclosure: I consider author Karen Zacharias a “writer friend” among whose attributes is an absolute bulldog tenacity to tell a story she believes needs telling — and tell it well.
I’ve written about her in The Register-Guard; the Hermiston reporter-turned-author also wrote the gut-wrenching non-fiction book, Silence of the Mockingbirds, about the domestic-violence death of a little girl in my hometown of Corvallis, Ore., and After the Flag Has Been Folded, about growing up in the south after her military father’s death in Vietnam. (So committed to the book was Zacharias that, when her newspaper editor refused to let her take a few weeks off to return to the place her father died in Vietnam, she quit and went.)
Mother of Rain is Zacharias’ first foray into fiction. But I found her transition from truth to made-up truth so seamless that her novel never read like anything but a real story.
In that respect, reading Mother of Rain is like watching Tom Hanks in a movie versus, say, Kevin Costner. Regardless of the character he plays, Costner is always Costner, a handsome Hollywood actor. Hanks, on the other hand, is a WWII captain in Normandy or a gay man in Philadelphia or Walt Disney or the captain of a cargo ship being pirated.
Likewise, Zacharias so deftly blends place, people and language that the story engulfs you like a lake-like ocean with a deceptive undertow. It reads with that true-to-place spirit of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Zacharias is like the sculptor who disciplines herself to use only the clay of her subject’s farm to create the image, her metaphors and similes always shaded with the hills of east Tennessee:
“Wheedin took the news jes like I figured she might—she come apart like a two-dollar suitcase.”
“When the pilot revved up the engine my backside shook with the fervor of a Pentecostal’s tambourine.”
“He was slumped over his coffee, like it was the last bit of warmth from a burn barrel.”
The story is about Maizee, who, as a little girl, witnesses an unspeakable tragedy that convinces her that she’s cursed. She is haunted by voices, images and guilt.
She grows up, marries a good man, has a son, Rain, and clings to a tenuous faith in God. Optimists like me hope her clinging to such strengths will prevent her from sinking deeper into a quicksand of mental illness.
As a reader, I appreciate Zacharias resisting a Disney-esque ending, even if I’m a sucker for them myself. As a writer, I applaud the difficulty of this dive — and the author’s ability to hit the water like an Olympian.
She not only sets her story in a different time, but kneads it with realistic hillbilly dialect and — here comes the double somersault — uses a handful of different narrators to tell the story. (Uh, my first foray into fiction involved a magical cat who could type on a keyboard.)
Zacharias’ ability to pull it off would be remarkable were the author a seasoned vet, much less a fiction newbie. And that ability makes it all the easier to forgive whatever slight shortcomings the book might have, for me a story that ends too abruptly.
Then again, you could argue that that’s more a problem with this particular reader than with that particular author, because Zacharias stays true to the reality of a darkness some of us would like to wish away.
But she is nothing if not a courageous writer, and courage has never been a kin of comfort.
Nor has comfort ever been the measure of a great book, which Mother of Rain is.