By: Jo Ann Kiser
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Publication Date: July 11, 2022
Reviewed by: Barbara Bamberger Scott
Review Date: July 18, 2022
In these memory-tinged stories, author Jo Ann Kiser revisits the scenes of her youth and development in a manner both touching and amusing as she depicts scenarios centered around her home place in eastern Kentucky.
In the first of fourteen tales, "The Guitar Player," Kiser tells introduces a guitar player, Hollis Ray, a man it seems without age or history who appears many times in the recollections of Clara, a tough-spirited girl determined to finish her schooling despite the raw circumstances her family is mired in. Her father Otis, brother Luke and she must live in a dingy hotel seeking work to bolster the family finances and get her back to college. Strangely, Hollis Ray is part of the saga, sharing his folkloric talents, singing the old songs.
Each of Kiser’s stories are imbued with the symbolism and sad realities of bygone times: many babies lost in childbirth; the struggles between the coal mine operators and the unions organized by desperate miners whose lives are under threat every time they go down in the damp darkness; the diligence of mothers trying to keep families fed on whatever foods can be found; the simple legacies of battered houses, old photos and a wedding ring quilt. Through each scenario there are observers, mostly female but some hard-working men as well. Settings range from “a string of gaunt gray houses perched above a dark greasy river” in a mining village, to the excitements of New York City and the quickly fading comforts of Florida, as characters migrate for money and a new lease on some form of secure lifestyle. The final story, “Encounters of a Close Kind,” links some of the families together in a visit to gravesites high on a hill.
There is little doubt that author Kiser is portraying herself, in bits and pieces, throughout this emotive collection. Scattered through the narrations are young women from the Kentucky byways longing to be back in the safety of a school dorm, clinging to hopes vested in writing and editing jobs such as Kiser has pursued in her own ventures away from coal country and factory towns. Though they have different names and disparate heritage, each is devoted in some way to the past, while embracing the alluring prospects of education, improvement, and a brighter future. Kiser’s prose is delicate and poignant, infused with the accents and small touches that credibly reveal her humble beginnings. Readers will hope for more offerings from this strong American voice.
Quill says: In The Guitar Player, Jo Ann Kiser has wrapped her many special characters in a cloak of memories - some harsh, some tender, all related in some way to hard times and a poverty-shaded childhood that many readers will recognize and identify with.
For more information on The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exile, please visit the author's website at: joannkiser.com