Review: The Lost Saints of Tennessee

If you want to read yourself some good ol’ southern literature, done just right like in Pat Conroy style, pick yourself up The Lost Saints of Tennessee.

This book took a hold of me from the very start with all that sorrow, sadness, and suffering, bitter betrayal, the stuff that is so “good” when it comes from the south. It’s a tale of two brothers that are so close it aches and how the other’s life crumbles to pieces when the other dies. It’s a book that delivers all that heart ache Conroy can wrench from you, and Ms. Franklin-Willis has achieved the same.

I added The Lost Saints of Tennessee to my To Be Read pile(s) and then found it sitting there in the “Look What’s New” section of the library. On the front cover was an endorsement by Pat Conroy himself:

A riveting, hardscrabble book on the rough hardscrabble south, which has rarely been written about with such grace and compassion.

I was sold that much more and scooped it up immediately. And sure enough, just as Conroy says, I too was riveted from the very beginning.

This story is about three people, it is narrated by two, Ezekiel and Lillian, but at the heart and soul of this story is Ezekiel’s twin brother, Carter. Oh your heart will break for Carter. Trust me there. Ezekiel and Lillian share narration starting in 1985 (present day) and going back to 1960 alternatively, with Ezekiel bearing the most of the narration or providing the largest point of view.

First of all, there is Carter to explain: Carter and Ezekiel were only toddlers when they contracted measles. Carter however suffered more and the end result was brain damage, rendering him with mental retardation. Carter dies from drowning in 1975.

Ezekiel:Ezekiel is Carter’s twin and had devoted his life to his care and well-being. He is completely unable to get over the death of his beloved twin ten years prior. His marriage has failed, his relationship with his mother has deteriorated to the point that it is irreparable. Ezekiel was the son with the most promise, a scholarship to the University of Virginia sees him separated from Carter and following a viscious incident, Lillian feels he must be institutionalized. “Throwing Carter away” is how Ezekiel describes it and this act is something he has never forgiven his mother for. In the month of the 10 year anniversary, Ezekiel decides to “run away” and attempts to repair his shattered life in the place he spent his short time in Virginia. You feel for Ezekiel, a lot, but those same questions keep coming from everyone: why can’t you love us? Why did you leave us? But he needs time, still, needs so much time to get over his grief over Carter.

Don’t you go off into that shut-down world of yours where nobody can go.

Lillian: a simple, yet very eloquent woman coming to terms with the end of her life and also the loss of her “life” as she wished it to be. She has cared for her son labelled “retarded” after surviving the measles at a very young age. Tired out, worn down and unable to cope with the additional care required for Carter, she makes the decision to institutionalize Carter and keep this decision from Ezekiel while he’s away at university. Now nearing the end of her life, she recounts her side of the story. It is brief, but it’s all good.

This is Franklin-Willis’ debut novel and I will definitely be looking forward to reading more from her! She invites you to poke around her website here.  Another awesome treat when visiting her site? She had a friend record 9 songs for her based on chapters, themes and characters in The Lost Saints of Tenneesee. You can listen to some here.

Franklin-Willis received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation to complete this novel (imagine that! Ms. George, as y’all know, is an amazing favourite of mine!). Elizabeth George has this to say about The Lost Saints of Tennessee and it echoes my feelings well:

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.  I loved this book.

This book definitely gets the Literary Hoarders stamp of approval. It will not disappoint!