In her debut novel, Amy Franklin-Willis tells the story of a family that seems destined to repeat the same mistakes, generation after generation. With Ezekiel Cooper, there’s finally a real chance to make a new life, but can he break the family pattern? In answering this question, The Lost Saints of Tennessee—which has been praised by Pat Conroy, Dorothy Allison, and Mark Satterfield—seems destined to take its place among novels that truly capture the heartbreak and hope of the working poor.
As The Lost Saints of Tennessee opens, Zeke Cooper is sitting in his truck outside Grayson’s Café in Clayton, Tennessee, the scene of his twenty-fifth high-school reunion. Hearing the laughter inside, he is reluctant to join his classmates: “When I go in they will avoid saying anything about our classmate and my former wife getting married last weekend. They will fail to mention my brother Carter’s name, even though he drowned almost ten years ago. And none will have the guts to ask the obvious question—how did the smart boy with a full scholarship to the University of Virginia end up living in a converted shed in his mother’s backyard and working on the line at the Dover elevator plant?” Adding to Zeke’s anxiety is the guilt he carries for his twin brother’s death and his anger at their mother for the decision that brought him home from the university and changed the course of his life more than twenty years earlier.
Weighed down by the past and seeing no hope for the future, Zeke decides to end his life. With Tucker, his late brother’s ancient dog, he takes a road trip east, ending up in Pigeon Forge, where he will have a little vacation before taking the pills he’s been saving up to finish things off, leaving behind two children and an ailing mother from whom he’s estranged: “A while ago I gave up wanting to be near her. I can speak politely to Mother for as long as it takes to say thank you for dinner or I’ll fix the chimney next week. Anything more leads us back down the path to Carter.” When this latest plan, like so many others in his life, goes awry, Zeke keeps heading east to the last place where he felt a real sense of opportunity—to the relatives he lived with in Virginia.
By moving the novel between past and present, Franklin-Willis contrasts the hopeless adult Zeke with the young Ezekiel, a child full of promise, the one his mother desperately pushed to make something of himself out in the larger world. But it’s not until the middle of the novel, when the narrative voice shifts to Zeke’s mother that the family’s history begins to feel almost tragic in scale. As Lillian Cooper prepares for surgery to treat lung cancer, an operation she may not survive, she reflects on the series of losses that has been her own life. As a young girl, she dreamed of being a singer, picturing herself on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. When a teen romance and an unplanned pregnancy put an end to that dream, she transferred her ambitions to her children, only to see those dreams disappear as well—lost to another teen pregnancy, in one case, and to a devastating childhood disease in another.
Lillian accepts blame for her mistakes but places them in the context of a very hard life: “I loved my husband. But if I’m being truthful, and I am trying to be truthful these days, at least with myself and the Lord, I never forgave Carter for getting me pregnant with Violet. I was only fifteen, for God’s sake.” As for the decision to institutionalize Zeke’s twin, whom disease has left mentally child-like, she explains, “But all I had been thinking about on the drive home from the hospital was how tired I was. How Ezekiel was gone. How Carter would never get any better than he was. All I could see were days stretching ahead of me that looked the same—get up, cook breakfast for Carter, help him bathe, help him put on clothes, do housework, keep him out of trouble, fix lunch, take him shopping, where everyone would stare at him, fix dinner, get him ready for bed. On and on, until my hair turned gray and so did my son’s.”
Zeke and Lillian’s relationship is the most nuanced of the book. Franklin-Willis makes Zeke’s anger with his mother logical, but she also makes it clear that his feelings are filtered through his own partial information and lack of understanding. He can see his mother only as a mother, not as a person with desires and wishes of her own. And it’s simply Lillian’s desire for something better for her son that leads her to act in ways that can’t be defended.
Amy Franklin-Willis treats all her characters with compassion. They have been battered and more than bruised from their battles, their dreams have been driven underground, and their behavior is not always noble. But Franklin-Willis makes it clear that they deserve the respect The Lost Saints of Tennessee unashamedly gives them.