Karen Spears Zacharias teaches at Central Washington University, and she writes thought-provoking books. In the spring of 2012, I reviewed her book “A Silence of Mockingbirds: Memoir of a Murder,” the emotionally jarring story of the torture and murder of Karly, a 3-year old girl in a small Oregon town.

Zacharias still works tirelessly to share that tragic story and to urge others to not only empathize but to act in any way possible on behalf of the many little ones out there like Karly who fall through the cracks of a flawed system. Zacharias has penned several other books of nonfiction and has written for the Huffington Post, New York Times, CNN and National Public Radio.

“Mother of Rain” is Zacharias’ first novel, and it is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is set in east Tennessee, a place I lived for a few years. I was immediately swept back there as the story unfolded with the remarkable dialect and folkways of the region that Zacharias weaves throughout her writing.

Maizee Hurd, the protagonist, is a girl beset with tragedy who is sent to live with a childless aunt and her husband. Maizee suffers from mental illness in a time when there are not a lot of resources for her. The voices she hears after losing nearly everyone she loves can only be stilled by the beauty of the hills and rivers, but sometimes the tormenting voices still overcome her and threaten to destroy her.

With unforgettable scenes starting on Page One, Zacharias does not sugarcoat the tragedy and the humanity, but neither does she skimp on the themes of love and friendship that tie this story together. I thought often, while I was reading about Maizee, that Flannery O’Connor had that same ability to shock and comfort at the same time. Zacharias has a gift for that kind of gritty storytelling, and she told me recently that there are likely more stories about Maizee’s family waiting to be told. The characters are based on some of Zacharias’ own family, and her love for them shines through.

When you pick up “Mother of Rain,” leave plenty of time for reading because you won’t want to put it down.

Zacharias will speak at Inklings in a few months. We invite you and your book club to take this journey to East Tennessee with us and learn about the Melungeon people. Melungeons were “free people of color”; people of mixed Indian, white and black ancestry located primarily in southwest Virginia, east Kentucky and east Tennessee. Burdy Lutrell, another vivid character in the book, is of Melungeon descent.

Take a look inside the troubled mind of mental illness and find the love that blooms in every kind of mother’s heart. Visit a time during World War II when days were uncertain and community care was vital — a time just like every time there’s ever been.

• “Mother of Rain” by Karen Spears Zacharias was published in September by Mercer University Press. It retails for $17.

• Susan Richmond owns Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space each week.