The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis (Atlantic Monthly Press; 320 pages; $25).
The Lost Saints of Tennessee is the debut novel of Amy Franklin-Willis, an eighth-generation Southerner born in Birmingham, Alabama. She was “raised on the tall tales” of her father’s “Huck Finn-like boyhood” growing up in Pocahontas, Tennessee, and those recollections inspired her multi-generational family saga. Although her story is set in the fictional town of Clayton, it serves as a “love letter” to her father’s hometown. The Lost Saints of Tennessee also “pays homage” to her grandmother, who “made the best corn bread in the world, smoked cigarettes in the bathroom so she wouldn’t set a bad example for her grandkids, and made strangers feel like family and family feel beloved.” And that is exactly what you will feel for the Coopers and the Parkers as you read this book: these characters become like your family, and you will not want to let them go.
Franklin-Willis tells the story in two distinct yet compelling voices, Ezekiel “Zeke” Cooper and his mother Lillian Parker Cooper. Both first-person narratives speak to us back and forth through time from the 1940s to the 1980s, revealing the ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs, of a family.
Zeke is not at his best when we first meet him. Recently divorced from his high-school sweetheart, Jackie, distant from his two daughters, and still distraught over the tragic death of his twin brother, Carter, Zeke plans on killing himself and his beloved old dog, Tucker, in a motel room in Pigeon Forge. Because this is primarily a story about redemption and second chances, Zeke fails in his suicide attempt. We breathe a sigh of relief, because we are already invested in the story and in its characters.
Little by little, it is revealed that Zeke and his mother are somewhat estranged. He cannot forgive her for what she did to his twin, who was forever damaged after having the measles as a toddler. There is just too much on Zeke’s shoulders, and he wants to get away from everything. Luckily, he finds an alternative to suicide. Zeke had briefly stayed with Lillian’s cousins on a farm in Virginia when he went to college there. Georgia and Oz are childless and have not forgotten Zeke after all these years. In fact, they think of him as their son and open their home to him. On the Virginia farm, Zeke becomes a new man, learning about farming, working through his problems, and even finding a second chance at love.
Lillian, meanwhile, discovers she has lung cancer. “Isn’t it amazing when you think about it—that a machine can see right through your skin, through your blood, and see what’s wrong inside?” She must have surgery to remove her lung. Her first-person narrative really allows you to see what the family has been through and why certain choices were made in the past. Interestingly, Zeke sees her as a bad mother, yet as I read Lillian’s account, I came away with the feeling she was anything but.
Parents, Lillian tells us, are not supposed to have favorite children. But she and her husband “took up favorites pretty early with the boys.” Her favorite was Zeke. Lillian had wanted Zeke to escape the confines of Clayton. Her dream was for him to go to college. “You see those lights up in the sky, Ezekiel? You see the brightest one” she said. “That, my boy, is you. Don’t let anybody tell you different. You’re one of the chosen ones. God will strengthen you. That’s what your name means.” It was Lillian who persuaded Zeke to go to college in Virginia, and it was Lillian who kept the truth from him after a horrible accident. That catastrophe was the turning point in the relationship between mother and son. Nothing would ever be the same between them until Lillian’s surgery brings the whole family together. A new chapter then begins for the Coopers and the Parkers.
I did find a few faults in the novel. Franklin-Willis is at her best when writing for Zeke and Lillian, but she tends to use too many stock characters. For example, Jackie takes on the role of jealous, whining, unhappy ex-wife. His older daughter, Honora, is mad at her father and seems to want to hurt him in any way she can. So what does she do? She turns to a boy who breaks her heart and ruins her reputation in Clayton. Zeke’s love interest in Virginia is a divorced rich girl who rides horses. Zeke’s twin, Carter, has the exact kind of life and death you would expect from someone with mental retardation. The real problem with Franklin-Willis, then, is that her story is often too predictable. She is much better at writing this family’s past than she is at describing their present. Lillian’s voice is particularly strong, and her remembrances mark my favorite part of The Lost Saints of Tennessee.
If you’re looking for a feel-good story about family, love, redemption, and second chances, Franklin-Willis delivers all that and more. The Lost Saints of Tennessee is a heart-warming debut from a talented up-and-coming Southern author. I hope we see more of her.