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Reviewed by Kimberlee J Benart for Readers' Favorite
The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exiles is an anthology of fourteen short stories by Jo Ann Kiser. Their common theme is that of reflecting on memories of rural (in this case, eastern Kentucky) childhoods from the standpoint of adults who left home, moved away, and established lives, careers, and families in urban or suburban settings elsewhere. The stories are full of the realities and challenges of work, education, health care, family life, and relationships in both fast-moving urban and near-poverty rural settings, as well as the changes that take place inside each of us in the process of going and growing beyond the bounds of our childhood world, as paradisiacal or as stressful as we may remember it to have been. “There are no charmed worlds,” one character concludes, “except those that we create, piece by piece, from our histories.”
In The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exiles, Jo Ann Kiser gives us a wonderful collection of stories that feature finely drawn characters and vividly drawn settings. Just as the beauty of the rural landscape and small towns lies in stark contrast to the impact of coal mining operations and mine closures, family relations vary from the tender, devoted, and protective to the strained, long-suffering, and deadly. We see rural families struggle to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads while some of their children gain education, allowing them to move into very different economic spheres. Coming home to see aging family members and visiting the scenes of their childhood becomes an important journey of rediscovery for each of them. An engaging and emotionally evocative read.