Book Review

Kristine Langley Mahler bookends her debut essay collection, Curing Season: Artifacts, with images of her adolescent self keeping vigil over a suburban neighborhood in Greenville, North Carolina. On the busiest street in the subdivision, where her family lived for four years, Mahler spent hours on her front porch, hidden from view by the overhanging roofline. She recalls this ritual as “a mnemonic for my self-positioning and how I believed someone would look deeper to find that girl selecting into her loneliness by refusing to come into the light.”

Such wistful self-positioning will be familiar to anyone who survived adolescence as an introvert, but Mahler probes her experience as an outsider in a specific place at a specific time. When her family moved to North Carolina from Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1992, Mahler found herself in a culture “as hard to penetrate as the pine windbreaks planted in the pocosins around the tobacco fields.” In Greenville, girls had the same names as their mothers, fifth graders attended cotillions, and white students were bused from the suburbs to desegregate schools.

Mahler excavates her memories through physical artifacts: A toy finger trap that provides the title of an essay about the best friend who betrayed her and later died as a young adult. An inventory of objects she collectively labels “creepsakes”—mementos of intrusion into others’ lives. An imaginary shadow box displaying the relics of middle school.

The shadow box provides both content and form for an essay that exemplifies Mahler’s refusal to be confined by the physical page. “Shadowbox” is arranged in cells that span several pages, like a dismantled curio display. Curing Season contains list essays, braided essays, and even an essay in the form of a grant proposal. The lengthiest essay in the collection, “A Pit Is Removed, a Hollow Remains,” is an ambitious hybrid of field notes, family tree, and scrapbook pages. In this essay, Mahler dissects a nine-hundred-page history of Pitt County, where Greenville is located. She juxtaposes local lore with personal memories and details of her own genealogy. Photographs of Mahler’s family are captioned with paragraphs cut and pasted from the history book. Curing Season repeatedly begs to be torn from its binding and reassembled, perhaps as a diorama.

Mahler employs these varied forms for a consistent purpose: to evoke and explore an outsider’s experience of adolescence that, to some degree, still defines Mahler decades later. The adult Mahler is a miniature figure returning to the diorama again and again, approaching along divergent routes and overturning different objects on each visit. Some of these visits are retroactive attempts to make herself an insider, as when she researches a Greenville cemetery, “imagining that an ancestral history in Pitt County would have allowed her to transform from a yearning adolescent” into a woman who knows where she belongs.

Through the artful ordering of the essays in her collection, Mahler engages diverse readers in her personal exploration. The essays’ sequence is an inversion of Mahler’s lived experience. While her memories originated as particular interactions that she revisits through the abstraction of metaphor, readers first encounter Mahler’s past through abstraction. The particularities of her relationships are revealed gradually. For example, we connect to Mahler as people who have been rejected before we learn the details of her best friend’s rejection.

This narrowing of focus eventually allows Mahler to spotlight her complicity in her own alienation. In the final essay, we discover that Mahler has been conducting something like a forensic investigation, arranging artifacts like a detective connecting clues on a cork board with red string:

The cruelties of those years are stored like evidence boxes in a back room, labeled with pseudonyms and shorthand so I could forget precisely who was who, and who really did what. I swear that the reasons used to be clear and obvious, but now the pain of being hurt is all that remains, though I don’t know whether it is my own pain or the pain I inflicted.

The triumph of Mahler’s interrogation is her willingness to acknowledge herself as a suspect and to accept that the ambiguities of the past are ultimately unsolvable.

About the Reviewer

Kim Kankiewicz is a Pushcart-nominated writer with work in Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, Sweet: A Literary Confection, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. She was a finalist in The Saturday Evening Post's Great American Fiction Contest. Kim lives with her family near Kansas City and is a student in the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at the University of Kansas. She is at work on a narrative nonfiction book about a trailblazing switchboard operator.