Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Lost Saints of Tennessee

A Novel

by Amy Franklin-Willis

“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 Dorothy Allison’s classic, Bastard Out of Carolina.” —Pat Conroy

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 368
  • Publication Date February 12, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2081-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

With enormous heart and dazzling agility, debut novelist Amy Franklin-Willis expertly mines the fault lines in one Southern working-class family. Driven by the soulful and intrepid voices of forty-two-year-old Ezekiel Cooper and his mother, Lillian, The Lost Saints of Tennessee journeys from the 1940s to the 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, puts his two treasured possessions—a childhood copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tucker, 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 as she clings to the hope that her family isn’t beyond repair.

When Zeke finds refuge with his sympathetic 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—either by clinging to the way life was or moving toward what life might be.

Written with abundant charm, warmth, and authority, The Lost Saints of Tennessee is the story of a unique brotherhood and a moving consideration of the ways grief can first devastate and then restore.

Tags Literary


“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.” —Abby Plesser, 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.” —S. Kirk Walsh, 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.” —Gina Webb, 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.” —Cheryl Krocker McKeon, 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, author of Bastard out of Carolina

“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, author of Georgia Bottoms and Crazy in Alabama

“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.” —Joanne Wilkinson, 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, author of Pay It Forward and Jumpstart the World

“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, author of The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove and Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen

“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, author of Julie and Romeo and Eat Cake: A Novel

“Captures the heartbreak and hope of the working poor.” —Faye Jones, Chapter 16 blog


Indie Next Pick (February 2012)


The bottles are lined up at attention like miniature orange-colored soldiers along the sink. The notes are stacked next to the phone on the bedside table. Jackie’s is first. I copied a passage from Huckleberry Finn, the one I’ve been rereading every day since coming to Pigeon Forge, about going out in the woods and hearing the sound a ghost makes when it has something to say but can’t communicate it. The ghost can’t go peacefully to its grave until it’s understood, so every night it wanders around grieving.

I pray Jackie won’t burn Honora’s and Louisa’s notes in anger. Not that I would blame her, but the girls will need to see them. My daughters are the most beautiful proof of my ever having breathed.

Tucker’s last meal consists of chicken fried steak and French fries from the diner. The dog can smell the food and his tail thuds in happy anticipation. I open the pills and sprinkle their contents on top like parmesan cheese. If I’ve timed everything right, we should both lose consciousness at the same time.

But the truth is, I’ve got no idea what I’m doing. Drugs have never been my thing. Alcohol, on the other hand, I have some experience with. It seems logical that I’ve got to get the dog set before I start downing the pills because what if I pass out too quickly? We are in this together. The two of us.

Reading Group Guide

by Barbara Putnam

1. A storyteller may be on many people’s sides, presenting various points of view. Is this the way Franklin-Willis writes? What can you say about the way she creates characters and themes?

2. Mary Karr has said that any family with more than one person is dysfunctional. She suggests “dysfunctional” means a family doesn’t work, relationships get strained or break down, and we fail or disappoint each other. Talk about Zeke’s original family and the one he creates.

3. Lost dreams are central to the book. “It’s just—I had ideas. Good ideas for my life and not a one of them ended up happening” (pp. 150-151). What happened to subvert Lillian’s hopes? Who else has thwarted hopes?

4. Lillian often tells Zeke, “You’re one of the chosen ones. . . . That’s what your name means” (p. 36). How does this anointed role affect Zeke’s life?

5. Jackie says, “Ezekiel, you’re not special. . . . You hold on to all that pain like it’s a kind of treasure. . . . You can’t love anybody since Carter died; the girls and I deserve better” (pp. 9-10). What other characters tell him the same thing? Who is Zeke in the beginning of the book and who does he become?

6. “Sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero” (epigraph to the novel). The connection between the twins, Carter and Zeke, pervades the story. How is the death of a sibling, in particular a twin sibling, different from other kinds of losses?

7. “Rosie is tough. When the girl decides something, whether it’s having fried okra for breakfast or working with famous country music people, get out of her way” (p. 32). How is Rosie’s strength important to Zeke in the story?

8. Fatherhood becomes a prominent issue in the novel. Is Zeke a natural father? “Why is it so hard to love us?” Honora asks Zeke (p. 293). Are there issues about his own father he is still trying to resolve? “And Dad went along with it, as he had with many things over the years. He did not fight for my brother. For me” (p. 223). Talk about Osborne as a surrogate father.

9. Sometimes what makes a novel rich is the ability to present an uncongenial character sympathetically. Do you find that ambiguity in any people in this book? Is this part of Zeke’s complexity? To what degree does he come to terms with his own nature—his failings, needs, temperament, and possibilities?

10. “My daily choices have evolved from whether to have chili or a Swanson’s Hungry Man Dinner to kicking around suicide methods” (p. 5). Talk about Zeke’s high drama/farce in the motel room. “The scale of this latest failure reinforces my belief that there is nothing I can’t screw up” (p. 57). Suicide also comes up later in the book. Why is Leroy driven to despair? Do you, as well as Zeke, have suspicions about Carter’s death? “That’s when Carter asked me to sing our song, Mother’s lullaby for us. Something in his tone felt funny” (p. 306). No matter what, can anything make Zeke feel less negligent about his brother’s death?

11. Lillian is a force to contend with. “Mother’s fierce presence guided her family. Prodding. Shouting. Loving. When Lillian Parker Cooper entered a room, there was a sense of the wind shifting, the very air seduced to come her way by her intoxicating combination of beauty, specialness, and sweet regret. Mother made you want to stand close to catch a bit of that breeze, to feel it filling the space around you” (p. 16). This is the woman who is lost to her favorite, Zeke—and he to her—for twenty-five years. Is this comprehensible to us?

12. What event causes Lillian to lose other family members in essential ways? How do you judge her behavior? “And I needed to believe someone still saw a spark in me, something that didn’t have to do with Carter or the children. Maybe that’s why most married people have affairs. Because the affair is separate from the family; it’s just about you” (p. 151). Is Lillian’s explanation persuasive? Is she able to keep the adventure “separate”?

13. The narrative impetus of Part II is Lillian herself. “No one left to pay much attention to me. There’s some telling left to do, though. If someone wants to listen, fine. If not, doesn’t bother me. All I need to do is tell” (p. 129). How does Lillian’s voice enrich the story? What is important that we learn from her point of view?

14. In a time when phone calls were prohibitive, letters were a lifeline. Yet, in this book, they more than once end up as dead letters. When and how is communication subverted, and what are the consequences?

15. “Surrounding farm owners must be making the same inventory as the Laceys, waking to worlds altered” (p. 123). This is after the tornado, orchard obliterated, loblolly pines mangled. When else in the novel do characters face “worlds altered”?

16. After her cancer diagnosis, Lillian says of Clayton, “This town is about as near dead as I feel” (p. 128). What elements of the town have perished, setting the tone for actual deaths in the book? Talk about Joe Cummins, Cassie, Leroy, Carter junior and senior, Osborne’s father, and Lillian herself. Even with the once vibrant Osborne, intimations of mortality start closing in. Georgia’s “expression reveals a grief already beginning for the husband she knows” (p. 215).

17. One narrative device of the author is foreshadowing. For instance, “He and Ezekiel started getting in fights with some of the other boys, who got meaner as they got older” (p. 167). And the hairdresser “Ruby was running thirty minutes behind schedule” (p. 173). Another instance of the plot’s tightening is “I kept telling Vi to put a hook-and-eye latch up high on the doors. . . . Vi paid me no mind” (p. 156). Can you find other examples of omens?

18. How is the section about Cassie a perfect storm of events contributing to catastrophe? (pp. 156-159). Think about the circumstances: Carter’s absence, Leroy’s job and his doomed reaction, the cows, and Cassie’s own nature.

19. “Part of me hoped that if Zeke found a way to forgive himself for not saving his brother from drowning, maybe he could figure out how to forgive me” (p. 188). Later, Zeke says about his daughter, “How does one accept forgiveness when you know you don’t deserve it? This girl loves me still” (p. 332). Other times of forgiveness? Carter? Elle? In the end, does Zeke finally forgive his mother for putting Carter in the state mental hospital all those years before?

20. Even with implacable Alzheimer’s, the Lacey marriage has a magic: “The secret code of their marriage is indecipherable” (p. 77). “He stares down at his hands as if they don’t belong to him. . . . When she enters the room, she goes straight to her husband, kneeling next to him and taking his hands in her own. Oz looks down at her and his mouth lifts. . . . Their devotion is almost painful to watch” (p. 216). How does the Lacey marriage not only cast light on his own failed experience but also give Zeke a model for his future?

21. Each part of the novel begins with a biblical quote. Ezekiel is a biblical prophet who ministered to the Israelites while they were in exile. How is the theme of exile explored in The Lost Saints of Tennessee? Is there more than one form of exile present in the novel?

22. Is Honora’s new friendship with Osborne part of her healing? “When I asked Honora about it, she told me he was an old guy losing bits and pieces of himself each day and that was a feeling she could understand” (p. 317). Who is this usually recalcitrant person, Honora? Like a dog with a bone, she holds onto her resentment in human and comic ways.

23. How do the riding lessons set some patterns that carry into Elle and Zeke’s relationship? What does Zeke have to give up—and what does he gain? What is it that Elle offers and demands? What are the snags in their romance? Is there hope for a mature bond between these two?

Suggestions for further reading:

Tender by Mark Childress; Fried Green Tomatoes by Fannie Flagg; Disobedience by Jane Hamilton; Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner; Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and Daniel Weaver-Zercher

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