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