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Jo Ann Kiser’s novel, “A Young Woman from the Provinces,” published by Atmosphere Press, is available locally at Epic Books and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Book Review | Kiser’s ‘Young Woman’ hits home

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By Jane Blakelock

Local author Jo Ann Kiser’s new novel, “A Young Woman from the Provinces,” unspools a journey to the self, the only reliable home that is everyone’s birthright. At one point, young narrator-protagonist Geneva Clay looks from her pickup bed perch through the tarp framing a lost green homestead. Her view from the bed of the truck remains galvanizing: a rich, expansive past, if not locally sustainable, must be recovered and carried forward, elsewhere.

The book’s broad appeal has many roots. Geneva shares an intellectually quick inner life while she trails bare feet in a landscape she never quite leaves behind. As with Kiser’s earlier collection, “The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exile,” readers learn much about the life and families of fictional Osier County in rural Eastern Kentucky.

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Harsh stringencies prompt moves to Florida, Virginia and Ohio; family dynamics are tested. Throughout, Geneva’s fierce loyalties to her Beauleigh and Clay heritages confront her need to experience more.

In this naturalist’s book of knowledge handed down, gardens and orchards are tended and harvested, hillsides adroitly foraged. When the Clay family returns for a time to Kentucky, Geneva’s joy chants a list of regional trees: “hickory, oak, elm, sycamore, beech and black walnut,” with sugar maples and ginseng to harvest.

Schoolyards are, variously, arenas of belonging and ostracism. Kiser taps into this phenomenon from formative rural grade school intrigues through cowardly racism on a liberal arts campus in an era still tainted by McCarthyism. Even in otherwise refined circles, Geneva stumbles over slights accruing to her Kentucky accent or ignorance of some bourgeois normative behavior.

Characteristic phrasings and cultural touchstones parse the colloquial and mark personal progression. One “lands up,” rather than “ends up.” A child’s earnest aural transcription, the “Monkey Ward wishbook,” is a humorous, misheard lyric that delights in the power of words. Verb use is poetic, refreshing: an eye bristles, several things scud, not one a cloud.

Young bibliophile Geneva shares popular classics with her mother, Eliza, a formative language influence who corrects the grammar and usage of others within earshot, and who recognizes that her daughter’s skilled navigation of the library can supply her own time-strapped literary needs. Collegiate Geneva observes the lambent, quixotic and oleaginous around her, but within contexts that keep readers satisfyingly smart.

Cornbread is dessert if it is at all sweetened, not the quick-bread staple that accompanies beans and economical dishes. Holiday generosity stretches to the limit, the poor family’s proudly expansive “just this once” in an otherwise penurious year.

Geneva distinguishes uses for thin summer quilts versus heavier, more finely patterned ones: warmer, but also, coveted heirlooms. Handmade and remade dresses and skirts telegraph straitened circumstances; home-fashioned originals give way to store-bought dresses, later to red jumpsuits and occasional jeans. A “yellow-as-the-moon” dress and one, sadly, not worn for its original intent, testify in textile and raiment.

Eventually, Geneva takes up cubicle life in a renowned research institute, and finds her place within committed writers’ circles. Kiser switches nimbly from the countryside to vintage Big Apple, a time capsule of late Mid-century architecture, restaurants and smoky jazz clubs, apartments in lower Manhattan and the inevitable major museums. Ms. Clay poses for her boyfriend, later husband, Cullen, artist errant, with a New York Public Library lion. The same Geneva who savors a deeper exposure to classical music feels the pull of the folksy singer-songwriter of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna’ Fall.”

Concerns about anti-communist sentiment and Vietnam escalation prove tragically prescient. Sexual politics, too, quietly pervade Geneva’s circumstances; she recognizes gendered treatment, at work and at home. Eliza forthrightly disdains John Wayne. An aunt coolly suppresses a dangerous, testosterone-fed situation with a firearm. In the plain assessment of work done by all family members, both immediate and extended, disparities are cleanly etched.

Demonstrated inequities, though, are never at anyone’s undue expense. Secondary characters — parents Packard and Eliza and two siblings, plentiful cousins and kin, college-turned-lifelong friend Elly — are drawn with fair, sympathetic appreciation of talents and struggles. Kiser excels in showing how traits redistribute in new variations across families, while close friends, de facto siblings, teach one another life skills of different geographies, and demonstrate how character is separate from privilege.

Going home, and whether you can, is an ageless topic. In “A Young Woman from the Provinces,” Geneva Clay’s movement into adulthood conjures past and present homes, sharing an irresistible tale of formal and informal education, of intellectual and personal growth.

*Jane Blakelock is a retired senior lecturer emerita of Wright State University and a 38-year resident of Yellow Springs. Jo Ann Kiser’s novel, “A Young Woman from the Provinces,” published by Atmosphere Press, is available locally at Epic Books and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

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