The town of Pocahontas, Tenn., 80 miles due east of Memphis with a population of about 1,000, has a starring role in "The Lost Saints of Tennessee," the debut novel of Amy Franklin-Willis.
"It's really a love letter to Pocahontas and to my grandmother," the author said by telephone from her home near San Francisco last week.
Franklin-Willis, who will sign "Lost Saints" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25) at The Booksellers at Laurelwood at 1 p.m. March 17, says the simplest description of her book was provided by a blogger: "It's about a man, his twin and his kin."
Her central character, Ezekiel Cooper, is the man. His twin, brain-damaged by a childhood illness, drowns as an adult, sending Zeke into an emotional crisis that eventually leads to his divorce. As the story starts, Zeke finds himself unable to enter the scene of his 25th high school reunion. Hours later, he sets off on a road trip, leaving his ex-wife and daughters, along with his mother -- a woman with a terrible secret -- behind in Clayton, the fictional name the author gives to Pocahontas. Zeke finds himself at the end of the trip in horse country outside Charlottesville, Va., relying on the kindness of cousins who have a farm there as he recovers from life's trauma.
Franklin-Willis has fond memories of Pocahontas, the hometown of her father, now a professor at a small college in New York state. Her parents divorced when she was a child, and she lived with her mother in southwest Oklahoma, but made regular trips to Pocahontas at Christmas and in summer.
"I was very close to my paternal grandmother who lived there," she says. "Every time I walked in the door when we arrived at Christmas, there would be ham in the oven, and a fresh-baked pan of cornbread, so there was not only this amazing person I love, but this smell I love."
Franklin-Willis went to Pocahontas with her father for his 25th high school reunion, and says that as a parent herself now, she's thought sympathetically about how divorce affects both parents and children, ideas that influence her novel's action.
"There are so many variations on how divorce can go," she said. "My mom is a social worker, and my dad is a clinical psychologist, so they knew how important it was to have an amicable divorce.
"Families so often repeat what happens. In my mother's family, she was one of seven children, and her mother got pregnant at 15. ... I was trying to understand that grandmother through Lillian" -- Ezekiel's mother in "Lost Saints." "She was an odd and distant person, and no wonder because she never got to finish growing up because she was taking care of all those children."
Franklin-Willis, 40, says her novel is a redemption story.
"I had several miscarriages during the span of writing the book," she says. (She and her wife, Wendy, now have daughters who are 13, 9 and 5.) "Each of us can imagine what catastrophic loss might be for us. For Zeke, it's his twin brother. He has not been able to get back to his life. ... He's holding a grudge against his mother. Is it believable not to talk to your mother with more than a sentence or two for 25 years? I talked to people, and unfortunately it is kind of believable."
In "Lost Saints," even adults have to grow up. "When you're 42 years old you can no longer blame your parents," Franklin-Willis said. "Zeke's one daughter who's not mad at him, she naturally forgives him for the divorce, and going to Virginia, and he has this moment of realization that it's almost harder to accept forgiveness than to offer it."
"The Lost Saints of Tennessee" also is an album. The author's across-the-street-neighbor, Andrew Castro, 26, wrote nine songs about the book and will travel with Franklin-Willis on her book tour to perform at appearances.
An immigrant's tale
"A Good American" is a British writer's story about a German family's progress through several generations in the United States. Alex George will sign his novel at The Booksellers at Laurelwood at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
A review in USA Today described "A Good American" (Amy Einhorn Books, $25.95) as, "The immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of those who settled in America's heartland. ... World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II come alive as does their All-American yearning to pursue a life abundant with happiness."
The book begins in Germany in 1904, with young lovers who head to New York when an unplanned pregnancy alienates them from family. They dock in New Orleans and settle in Missouri, where subsequent generations play out their lives in George's telling.
The author, born in Great Britain, now lives in Columbia, Mo., where he practices law.
The Booksellers at Laurelwood is at 387 Perkins Ext. Call (901) 683-9801.
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