In Kristine Langley Mahler’s debut essay collection Curing Season, form is as important as content. The latter remains locked into a certain place and time — Greenville, Pitt County, eastern North Carolina, where Mahler lived during four years of her preadolescence.
Mahler’s essays revisit the girls she knew and her own feelings of displacement as someone who grew up in Oregon and was uprooted to Pitt County for her father’s job. The essays focus on the cultural differences between the South and the West Coast. They replay a friendship that soured, mourning this ex-friend who dies in her late twenties, long after the friendship ended.
All this circling around the same four years would get tiresome without the unique and experimental structures of each of the thirteen essays. Curing Season seems to argue that the truth can be better understood when it’s repeatedly examined and the shape of the examinations shift.
Take Mahler’s most common theme: the difficulty of belonging as a preteen and how peers intensify that feeling. The second essay, “Club Pines,” is divided into sections with headings such as “My house,” “Katy’s house,” “Joanne’s house,” etc. Memories of houses and girls follow: what the houses smelled like and how the girls behaved towards Mahler, nice sometimes and cruel at others. The names blur together, as do the girls’ houses and actions that mostly involve the juggling of friends and enemies, which takes up so much time at that age. Mahler leaves her towel at one girl’s house in an attempt at making a friend. She steals back a pin from another. All interactions are dissected to emphasize Mahler’s difference and displacement from these mostly native North Carolinians.
Following “Club Pines” is the essay “Shadowbox” that again centers on Mahler’s relationships with these girls. A line from “Shadowbox” that could also be in “Club Pines”: “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.” The major difference between the two is how this essay investigates issues of belonging. Structured with big boxes at the beginning and end, and thin vertical ones between, “Shadowbox” physically resembles the shadowbox Mahler’s father built. It is “a miniature cabinet of curiosities” that Mahler fills with objects that remind her of those girls and highlight her outsider status. By putting them in a cabinet, the author takes a step back.
The second most circled around topic is the adult death of Annie, with whom Mahler had an adolescent friendship breakup. Annie is mentioned in “Club Pines” briefly, though it is in “Mädchenfänger” where the full implication of the relationship is revealed. This essay’s structure is a numbered list with some bolded short phrases that sketch the complicated sense of relief Mahler felt at discovering Annie’s death. The youthful friendship is also outlined in broad generalities, like “5. You remember the messages on your answering machine after two grades of best friendship, the mortifying hurt as she demoted you, loser.” Three essays later, “Not Something That’s Gone” — a longer, more traditionally structured essay — dives into the details. In stepping closer, Mahler unearths her own complicity in the demise of the friendship: “I could shape you into what I wanted you to be, what I wanted you to have been.” We create our memories.
The truth through structure of Curing Season allows Mahler multiple iterations from multiple positions. In “A Pit Is Removed, a Hollow Remains,” the longest and most variable essay, Mahler confronts her obsession with writing herself into Pitt County history, which, in this essay, is an actual history book that was published by the Pitt County Historical Society that Mahler quotes directly. Personal photographs and ephemera collaged with quotations from Pitt County history, a report structure, and the previously mentioned shadowboxes are all used at different parts of the essay to provide a new vision of the old question: “Why didn’t I, couldn’t I, belong?” Through Mahler’s re-answering, she asks new questions about family inheritance and the “implications of [her] inactions” as a witness to the racism there and her privilege. She writes, “I belong in eastern North Carolina more now than when I lived there.” By examining this place from so many points, she has written herself into belonging.
What we see depends on how we look at it, how we organize our information, and what we choose to include or not — and, in Mahler’s case, how often we return to it. Curing Season is a sustained grasp on four years of the author’s life, four years that left a tremendous impact. Mahler reminds us of the benefits of obsession, of studying a time from all angles. We can better understand our mistakes. We can find our way in and stay.
By Kristine Langley Mahler
West Virginia University Press
October 1, 2022