Reviewed by Emily Webber
Few can say they have never spent time searching online or even looking into property records to discover what old friends and lovers have made of themselves. In Curing Season: Artifacts (West Virginia University Press, 2022), Kristine Langley Mahler’s experimental memoir, she spends countless hours digging up information on the past. With an amazing memory for all the details of former friends and acquaintances and a relentlessness in her search, she’s an expert at this kind of sleuthing. Watching her do it is a guilty pleasure, and Mahler also elicits deep insight. Using inventive forms, the essays in Curing Season reflect on belonging, truth, and how personal history lines up against the larger history of a place.
Mahler’s memoir focuses on the time when her family relocated from Oregon to Greenville, a city in Pitt County, North Carolina, when she was 10 years old. While the family only lived there for a brief time, Mahler struggled during these formative years to belong, finding herself at odds with the traditions and strong family legacies in the South. In a beginning essay, she describes her friends and their home life in exacting detail, so clearly an outsider looking in, and the reader can fully see the depths of her loneliness and longing for a connection. Then there’s Annie, Mahler’s once best friend, until Annie abandons her and forms a friendship with another girl. The two friends, long estranged from each other, have very brief moments of connection after Mahler moves away. Mahler writes about her complicated feelings around forgiveness when she learns her friend has died. As much as Mahler is haunted by her time in Pitt County, she is haunted by her friendship with Annie and their unresolved end.
While Mahler’s memoir is about a particular place with its unique traditions, the feeling of adolescent longing to fit in resonates regardless of place. Her writing on adolescence and friendship is universal:
I was a sidewinder trying to coil into friendships that weren’t much more than a gesture, a lunch conversation one Tuesday, a week-long science project that required a partner. Each interaction was an emblem of an outstretched hand, I thought, but when I would place them together to compile a collection of interest, they didn’t add up; each hand reaching out was mine.
Mahler’s experiments with form enhance this collection, so we are discovering and mapping out the information with her. Some of the essays in Curing Season are traditional in shape, and others are more experimental. There are essays in the form of a proposal, pictures of Mahler’s childhood paired with excerpts from the Pitt County history record, lists, hermit crab essays, public records and photographs weaved in, and borrowed words from novels. The finding and dissecting of the information, history, and personal experience are central to this collection.
Through Mahler’s piecing together her history against that of Pitt County, we see the stories that are often left out and that there are many versions of truth. Sometimes, even when we are trying to uncover the truth, we slant our stories to fit our version of it. She writes:
I have been modifying history for decades. I have been claiming it and recasting it and inserting myself while dipping the documents in tea, crumpling them up and letting them dry before spreading them out on the table as evidence.
As Mahler further examines her own experiences, she begins to reflect on others who were often excluded, such as people of color, and her role in rejecting other kids at her school. She also acknowledges that she focused on all the ways Pitt County harmed her while more easily forgetting the moments of generosity and kindness she experienced there.
Kristine Langley Mahler’s Curing Season: Artifacts is an outsider’s search back into a place she briefly called home and a reworking of history from personal experiences. This memoir is as much about the process of examining the past as it is about what it reveals. It is mesmerizing to watch Mahler collect the fragments of information she uncovers, how she pieces it together, and the revelations that occur. Mahler’s experience prompted me to ask the question of myself: what would I find if I did the same?