Karen Spears Zacharias grew up in a military family and spent a portion of her childhood traveling the country as her father was assigned to new posts, but it was her time in Appalachia, specifically in Georgia and her parents’ childhood homes in East Tennessee, that not only shaped her writing, but defined her, she said.
“I was exposed to many landscapes, but home to me was always crossing the Holston River [in Tennessee] and up through those hills,” Zacharias said.
As the 2018 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence at Shepherd University, Zacharias’ work was celebrated at the recent Appalachian Heritage Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Her 2013 novel “Mother of Rain,” a Weatherford Award winner, was also chosen as this year’s One Book, One West Virginia Common Reading selection.
Zacharias’ father was killed in combat in the Vietnam War and his death had a huge impact on her family.
“Prior to my dad’s death, everything in my life revolved around [him]. Where we would live, schools we would go to, where [the] next deployment would be,” Zacharias said. “This man was the center of our lives for all those previous years and we didn’t even speak his name once he was buried.”
Zacharias said as she was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s in the South, there was a culture of not discussing things that were upsetting or unpleasant. So the family fell silent. She only ever heard stories about her father from her paternal grandmother.
It wasn’t until Zacharias became a mother herself that she realized that at that age, her own mother’s world “fell apart” with her father’s passing. Writing became the catalyst for helping Zacharias process the struggles of her youth. It also gave her a pathway to remain connected to her Appalachian roots.
“Writing gave me an order to all the chaos,” Zacharias said.
This coping mechanism led Zacharias to become a journalist, nonfiction writer and novelist. “Mother of Rain” depicts a young woman’s struggle as she settles in Appalachia.
Faith also played an important role in Zacharias’ storytelling. Church became a safe place in her childhood after her father’s death, when her own home no longer was, and when school felt unstable during the Civil Rights Movement, church gave her a sense of community, which she said is what “Mother of Rain” is all about.
Church is place that can give hurting people hope, Zacharias said, but cultural changes have diminished that role in the eyes of Appalachian communities, leading hurting people to turn to other forms of comfort, such as opioids.
“Hurting people will always seek solace. It’s a matter of who is going to be there to offer it to them,” she said.
In “Mother of Rain”, Zacharias aimed to preserve the language and culture of Appalachia that she knew so intimately as a child. It began while attending a conference in South Carolina. It was then that Zacharias was gifted a dictionary of Smoky Mountain English and it revived the voices from her childhood, as well as inspired a “calling back to the time and place and people in my life that had brought healing to me and had given me a sense of home and a sense of belonging.”
She took that dictionary home to show to her own children, who did not grow up in the region. Zacharias’ work uses the elements of her childhood to show her children part of not only her history, but their history as well.
Zacharias’ other works include “After the Flag Has Been Folded: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost to War—and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together” (2006), “Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide” (2010), “A Silence of Mockingbirds” (2012), “Burdy” (2015) and “Christian Bend” (2017).