The Lost Saints of Tennessee

The Lost Saints of Tennessee

4.5 7
by Amy Franklin-Willis

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With enormous heart and dazzling agility, Amy Franklin-Willis expertly mines the fault lines in one Southern working-class family. Driven by the soulful voices of forty-two-year-old Ezekiel Cooper and his mother, Lillian, The Lost Saints of Tennessee journeys from the 1940s to 1980s as it follows Zeke’s evolution from anointed son, to honorable sibling


With enormous heart and dazzling agility, Amy Franklin-Willis expertly mines the fault lines in one Southern working-class family. Driven by the soulful voices of forty-two-year-old Ezekiel Cooper and his mother, Lillian, The Lost Saints of Tennessee journeys from the 1940s to 1980s as it follows Zeke’s evolution from anointed son, to honorable sibling, to unhinged middle-aged man.

After Zeke loses his twin brother in a mysterious drowning and his wife to divorce, only ghosts remain in his hometown of Clayton, Tennessee. Zeke makes the decision to leave town in a final attempt to escape his pain, throwing his two treasured possessions—a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his dead brother’s ancient dog—into his truck, and heads east. He leaves behind two young daughters and his estranged mother, who reveals her own conflicting view of the Cooper family story in a vulnerable but spirited voice stricken by guilt over old sins and clinging to the hope that her family isn’t beyond repair.

When Zeke finds refuge with cousins in Virginia horse country, divine acts in the form of severe weather, illness, and a new romance collide, leading Zeke to a crossroads where he must decide the fate of his family.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1985, a decade after losing his twin brother, Carter, in a drowning accident, Zeke Cooper leaves his hometown of Clayton, Tenn. (and his teenage daughters and ex-wife), with enough pain pills to kill himself and his dog. Despite the novel’s gloomy undertones, Franklin-Willis’s well-rendered debut slowly charms—complete with a Southern drawl—as Zeke lands at his mother’s cousin’s farm in Virginia. There, Zeke begins a romance with Elle, a horseback riding teacher, but he remains stuck in the past, grieving for his brother and angry with his mother, Lillian, who’s been recently diagnosed with cancer. Lillian proves a more compelling and introspective character than Zeke, and she briefly takes over as narrator, recounting the many tragedies in her life, including Carter being diagnosed as mentally handicapped when he was a child, a lurid affair with her brother-in-law, and a haunting drunk-driving accident. Together, mother’s and son’s tangled stories from the ’40s and ’50s provide just enough insight into the present-day family dynamic for readers to believe that there’s hope for Zeke after all. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

"Pitch-perfect . . . In her powerful debut, Franklin-Willis expertly crafts a Southern novel that stands with genre classics like The Prince of Tides and Bastard Out of Carolina. . . . A measured, slow-burning book, with complex, compelling characters and secrets that reveal themselves slowly. A beautiful novel from a talented new author, The Lost Saints of Tennessee proves that in great literature, as in life, we must always expect the unexpected." —Bookpage

"Compelling . . . It is the natural voices of Franklin-Willis's characters and the Southern setting that carry this novel. . . . The author's honest prose rises from the heart. . . . Leaves the reader rooting for the characters until the novel's last page."—The Boston Globe

"Sensitively told."—The New York Times

"Anyone who’s ever left home and regretted it—or, for that matter, stayed home and regretted it—will find much here to savor, as will those whose family ties consist of the kind of cracked emotional currency Zeke and Lillian have exchanged most of their lives. . . . [The Cooper's] interactions are . . . brusque, impatient, angry, down-to-earth, sorrowful—they’re a loving but realistic bunch, their attempts to reach each other crusted over with failure. But they don’t give up. What most embodies this spirit, and anchors this vivid, faithfully drawn family history, is Lillian and Zeke’s 25-year-old estrangement, on one side sadly accepting, on the other, fiercely judgmental—both ready to set the record straight. . . . Though the reader is left to evaluate whose side is more sympathetic, it’s clear that only the two together can make up a whole, one that offers hope — and maybe just a little bit of sainthood after all."—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Skillfully chronicles the misadventures of a poor small-town Tennessee family . . . Written in homespun but accomplished prose . . . An impressive first novel."—Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)

"Poignant . . . Franklin-Willis plumbs the depths of family dynamics, compassionately depicting her characters as they struggle with situations over which they have no control." —Library Journal (starred review)

"Franklin-Willis's well-rendered debut charms."—Publishers Weekly

"Rich in spot-on references: readers will taste the cornbread, shiver at the snow on the mountaintops, and be warmed by the Cooper family's love and loyalty through good times and bad."—Shelf Awareness

“The gifted novelist, Amy Franklin-Willis, has written a riveting, hardscrabble book on the rough, hardscrabble south, which has rarely been written about with such grace and compassion. It reminded me of the time I read Dorothy Allison’s classic, Bastard out of Carolina.”—Pat Conroy

The Lost Saints of Tennessee is a joy—a wonderful, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting story about the unbreakable bonds of brotherhood and the human will to survive. I was deeply moved by it and equally impressed.”—Elizabeth George

“Franklin-Willis has grace on the page.”–Dorothy Allison

“Amy Franklin-Willis’s characters speak with graceful authenticity. The Lost Saints of Tennessee moves from sadness to understanding, through a landscape full of small mysteries and large truths. Franklin-Willis proves herself a writer of promise and talent.”—Mark Childress

“Franklin-Willis has endless compassion for her working-class southern characters. . . . [An] uplifting story of one man’s attempt to make a better life for himself and his family.”—Booklist

“I was in love with The Lost Saints of Tennessee all the way through. Every page. It was the most satisfying book I’ve read in a long time.”—Catherine Ryan Hyde

“In her splendid debut novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee, Amy Franklin-Willis delivers a tender, lyrical tale about one broken man’s search for forgiveness, healing, and the real meaning of family. Her words ring true on every page and compel us to follow in step as Ezekiel Cooper journeys from the life he has known to the one he so desperately craves.”—Susan Gregg Gilmore

“Amy Franklin-Willis has given us a first novel full of great love, pathos, and change. A rich and compelling tale of a large family and the complexities of the human spirit, you will not want to put The Lost Saints of Tennessee down. It is a completely satisfying read.”—Jeanne Ray

Library Journal
In literature, the working-class Southerner is often overlooked in deference to the antebellum aristocrat or the outrageous redneck, but Franklin-Willis effectively ploughs this fertile field with the poignant story of Ezekiel Cooper, the smartest boy in his Tennessee high school class, who earns a full scholarship to the University of Virginia only to give it up to care for his mentally challenged twin brother. At 42, Zeke reviews the debilitating bonds of family loyalty and dysfunction that drive him—his anger with his mother for her ambitions and mistakes, resentment for having left school, guilt over his brother's death and his failed marriage, crumbling relationships with his daughters, and his own depression and dim prospects for the future—and determines to do something about them. Taking his brother's dog, Zeke finds refuge with his Virginia cousins and a chance at a redemptive future. VERDICT In her first novel, Franklin-Willis, winner of an Emerging Writers Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, plumbs the depths of family dynamics, compassionately depicting her characters as they struggle with situations over which they have no control. Fans of family fiction will easily identify with the characters and situations. [Eight-city tour; see Prepub Alert, 8/8/11.]—Thomas L. Kilpatrick, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
In Franklin-Willis' first novel, set in 1985 with backward glances at three decades, a 40-something Southerner struggles to come to grips with his roles as father, son, ex-husband and twin brother. Ezekiel Cooper was supposed to be the one in his family to make it out of their small working-class community. His mother Lillian, whose own ambitions were thwarted by her first pregnancy, had low expectations for her three daughters, and Ezekiel's brother Carter was mentally impaired since a childhood bout of encephalitis, but Lillian recognized Ezekiel's potential and made sure he received a scholarship to the University of Virginia. Twenty years later, Ezekiel works at the elevator plant and lives alone with his dog in a shack in Lillian's backyard. Divorced from his high-school sweetheart, who has recently remarried, he rarely sees his daughters. And he's still grief-stricken over Carter's drowning 10 years earlier. He blames Lillian for Carter's brief, unhappy life but blames himself for Carter's accidental death. In a depressed funk, he drives out of town planning to commit suicide. Instead he finds himself heading to the horse-country farm outside Charlottesville, where he lived with Lillian's cousin Georgia and her wealthy husband Osborne during the happy months he attended college in 1960, before returning home for Christmas. Discovering his mother had placed Carter in a facility, he quit school to take charge of Carter's care. Now he finds happiness in Virginia again, not to mention potential romance. But then he learns his mother is dying and his older daughter is in emotional crisis, along with his ex-wife. His efforts to balance his own needs with his responsibility to his family are set in relief against Lillian's memories of being a wife and mother torn between love of family and private yearnings. Franklin-Willis has a fine touch for the small-town Southern world in which she grew up and an obvious affection for her characters, if anything a surfeit of affection--Ezekiel's sensitivity strains credibility and wears the reader out.
Alison McCulloch
…the main characters are agreeably imperfect, their stories sensitively told.
—The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

An eighth-generation Southerner, Amy Franklin-Willis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2007, she received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation to complete The Lost Saints of Tennessee.

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The Lost Saints of Tennessee: A Novel 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lost Saints of Tennessee is one of those rare, remarkable books that draws you in on the very first page, makes you laugh, makes you cry, and simultaneously breaks your heart and fills you with hope. At its core it’s a story of a family, told by two characters, Zeke and his mother, Lillian, who are both hungry for more than what life has in store for them in their small town in Tennessee. The reader learns the hopes, dreams, tragedies and failings of the family members through these two different points of view, as both characters come to terms with the past, and their own flaws, while trying to wrestle their demons. Ultimately, love and redemption triumph over disappointment and resentment and binds this family together. Amy Franklin-Willis is such a talented writer, possessing a magic that reminds me of John Irving. Her writing is both poignant and descriptive, and never over done. In short, I would highly recommend this book.
LydiaNetzer More than 1 year ago
Amy Franklin-Willis has set herself the daunting task of drawing out a good old boy from Tennessee, divorced, working at a factory, taciturn, connected only to his old dog and his truck, into the lovable and believable narrator of his own story. It's a story of loss, betrayal, and bitterness in the past, despair in the present, and the possibility of a new chance at life in the future. She does it majestically -- portraying love without sentimentality, grief without mawkishness, hope without artifice. I can't remember when I have connected on such an emotional level to a male character written by a female author. Maybe not since [book:Water for Elephants|43641] has a male character been so moving. Lost Saints in Tennessee is authentic, deep, and true. A heartbreaking story of the realities of loneliness and the power of brotherly love.
CherishD More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written story...such a sweet, smooth read. Loved the unfolding and the weaving, the perfect blending...this was one of those stories you just fall into.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story line in this book pulls you in from the beginning. While well written, I do think the characters could have been more developed. Lillian's point of view was the most complete and, in my opinion, honest portrayal of the book. Good read, but left me wanting a little more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There's not a lot of excitement in this novel, but it's a great story. Losing his twin brother several years earlier has been hard on Ezekiel and as a result his life becomes difficult. His plan to end his suffering takes a surprising turn, and he has to decide what's best for him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago