9/1/13 – FINDING HONOR IN THE LOST SAINTS OF TENNESSEE
Aptly named, The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis is a story about loss—both the losses that are unavoidable and the ones we inflict on ourselves. But despite their losses, and there are many, the characters in this novel have a ragged nobility that comes from trying to do the right thing, even when the consequences turn out all wrong. That may not be enough to qualify for sainthood, but it was enough to keep me involved with these characters from start to finish. I enjoyed this book as much as any I’ve read in a long time.
The first character we meet in the novel is Ezekiel Cooper, a forty-two-year-old man sitting in his truck outside the restaurant where his Clayton, Tennessee high school class is celebrating its twenty-fifth reunion. Zeke is sitting there because he doesn’t want to go inside. He’s lost any feeling of camaraderie with his classmates, just as he’s lost his wife, Jackie, in a recent divorce. He also lost his mentally disabled twin brother, Carter, to a drowning 10 years earlier, and he’s about to try to lose his own life with several bottles of codeine pills.
But he’s a loser even at that. His stomach refuses to keep the pills down, and he succeeds only in making his beloved dog, whom he tries to take with him on his final journey, very sick. When the dog recovers, the two strike out on a trip to Virginia to hole up with Zeke’s mother’s cousin, leaving behind his job, his two daughters, his three sisters, and his mother.
It is this mother, Lillian Parker Cooper, whom Zeke holds responsible for the chain of losses in his life. Decades earlier, while Zeke was living with the Virginia cousin and attending the University of Virginia on scholarship, Lillian admitted Carter to the state hospital. Home for the Christmas holidays, Zeke learned about the admission and refused to return to college. Instead, he forced Lillian to sign Carter’s release papers and took his brother home to live with him in the shed behind their parents’ house. The college education he was so eager for was left behind. But he couldn’t protect his beloved brother from everything, including drowning.
Living in Virginia again after his failed suicide attempt, Zeke begins to like farm life and the woman who teaches horseback riding on the farm across the road, but once again, Lillian interferes. She needs surgery for lung cancer, and Zeke’s cousin prods him into going home.
The ongoing battle between Zeke and Lillian propels The Lost Saints of Tennessee forward, and Franklin-Willis skillfully plunks the reader smack in the middle of the struggle by letting each character tell his or her side of the story. Zeke’s voice is so strong and pitiful that it’s easy to feel his sense of injustice and resentment. But Lillian’s life’s been no picnic, either, and Franklin-Willis gives her her own section of the book to tell the reader why.
With Lillian’s death looming, is it possible for either of these characters to find resolution and peace? Franklin-Willis’s complex story gives Zeke options and choices, but whether he ultimately wins or loses is up to him.
To learn what Franklin-Willis thinks of these characters, why she decided to include Lillian’s voice, and other insights into the novel, join me here on Sept. 10 for my interview with the author.