The planet where novelist Mary McGarry Morris lives must be a place of great sadness, but not one shrouded in vague, foglike melancholy...

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The planet where novelist Mary McGarry Morris lives must be a place of great sadness, but not one shrouded in vague, foglike melancholy. The atmosphere there somehow enables vision so sharp that it seems over-corrected; superhuman in its clarity. Through Morris’ eyes, moments in a bleak childhood or snapshots of an adult’s sense of utter helplessness and loss become oddly beautiful.

“The Lost Mother” (Viking, 274 pp., $23.95) comes just a year after the publication of “A Hole in the Universe,” Morris’ haunting novel about an ex-con trying to make it on the outside. Her fiction debut, “Vanished,” first published in 1988 and nominated for both the PEN/Faulkner and National Book Awards, was a tough act to follow, but she’s held her own with subsequent novels. She hit the book-sales lottery when her 1995 novel, “Songs in Ordinary Time,” was selected by the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. With the possible exception of “Fiona Range” (2000), each book has been stronger than the last.

If Morris has a fault, it is a heavy foot on the drama pedal. She usually lets up just in the nick of time, before the reader enters full-blown panic. This latest work doesn’t rely so heavily on revving up our heart rates through fantastic plot twists or dread over the doings of dark-hearted people, and that is to the good. The story uses her familiar displaced, lonely characters, but the emotions generated here come from woefully realistic circumstances, as a desperate father tries to provide for two children during the worst of the Great Depression.

Set in small-town Vermont, “The Lost Mother” traces the struggles of thoughtful 11-year-old Thomas and his feisty 8-year-old sister, Margaret. Their mother has mysteriously abandoned them to an impoverished life with their father, Henry Talcott, who combs the countryside, looking for jobs butchering farm animals. “Home” now means a damp tent in the woods, where clean clothes and regular meals are luxuries.

Morris is especially skilled at expressing a child’s thoughts, mirroring the confusion that accompanies their dogged efforts to fathom adult behavior, and their poignant attempts to please even the elders who mistreat them.

When the family’s circumstances worsen, a well-to-do farmer’s wife steps up her unwanted efforts to take in the children, as her husband cuts off Henry’s few opportunities for work. Young Thomas hatches a doomed plot to find their missing mother, and the children’s lives enter an inevitable downward spiral. This novel’s ending will surprise readers of Morris’ other books; it is both unpredictable and highly satisfying in its shoring up of various bits and pieces of the story.

“The Lost Mother” blends good fiction with real history, capturing the desolation of rural poverty in Depression-era America, when the social-services safety net was little more than interfering neighbors and orphanages modeled on prisons. Throughout, one wonders what price a writer pays for this ability to feel others’ pain so acutely, then render it into a gift of fiction to her readers.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.