Curing Season: A Look at a Lyrical Memoir
Review by Ashley Espinoza
by Kristine Langley Mahler
West Virginia University Press
Publication: October 2022
Paperback, 192 pages
Curing Season: A Look at a Lyrical Memoir
Curing Season is a lyrical essay, a segmented essay, and a hermit crab essay, all in one book. It is written in the container of a book but explores the various forms given to creative nonfiction. With essays like “Shadow Box” which is written in squares and rectangles to be contained in a shadow box, “Mädchenfänger” a list essay, several segmented essays, and a photo essay, this collection is not a straightforward narrative.
The subtitle of Curing Season is “Artifacts” which accurately describes this essay collection. Kristine Langley Mahler has collected artifacts from her life and presented them in a way that reads like a collection of her life. Each essay is its own artifact as they reveal something about the author in a way she is trying to reveal her past self to her current self. The subtitle Artifacts refers to the essay and artifacts Langley writes about while the title Curing Season is a reference to the tobacco curing season in Pitt County. This book is a preservation of her time in Pitt County, just as curing tobacco is a preservation of the plant.
I love creative nonfiction in hybrid and lyrical forms. Curing Season hits the right intersection of writing with brevity. I know what Langley Mahler’s life was like in these short experimental essays, without the need for long descriptive scenes. This book allows the reader to pause and reflect on their own lives. I found myself relating to my own adolescence and the challenges it brings. The short chapters pull the reader through this coming-of-age memoir.
Langley Mahler is obsessed with place. So much so that much of her book is exploring what a specific place means to her and to her adolescence. She opens up her segmented essay “Club Pines,” with a section titled ‘My House,” where she reveals her family had moved to an upper-middle-class suburban area in North Carolina from Oregon. Though her childhood was spent in Oregon she felt displaced as an adolescent in Club Pines. The segmented essay moves on to discuss each one of her friend’s homes and what each one means to her. In visiting each home Mahler reveals her discomfort in being in a new town. In Michelle’s house, Mahler states that she is never invited back once Michelle realizes that Mahler is being bused to an urban school in an effort to desegregate. In other friend’s homes, she visits families that don’t eat dinner together, kids that don’t have rules, and homes that are filled with tobacco smoke. When faced with homes Mahler doesn’t feel comfortable in, she calls her mother to get her. On another occasion when her friend Heather curses in front of adults she leaves. Mahler has a specific idea in her mind of how her friends and their families should behave and if they don’t act according to her ideas about family she doesn’t stick around. Each section signifies how badly Mahler wants to fit in with the girls in her school, but she doesn’t know how, and her experiences don’t match up with her expectations.
Kristine Langley Mahler continues to explore her obsession with place and turns it into art on the page. Her essay, “A Pit is Removed, A Hollow Remains” is a clever title derived from the author living in Pitt County, North Carolina. Mahler, who is the pit in this essay, leaves Pitt County and as an adult obsesses over living there. It’s a place of her life that is hollow because she keeps coming back to those years to make sense of them. She also tries to make sense of a girl that was her friend but has since passed away.
She writes “I have not physically been to Pitt County in fifteen years. It doesn’t matter. I have been there fifteen hundred times in my mind.”
She takes her own personal obsession of tracking Pitt County down to googling what people’s homes look like and she turns it into a personal narrative. The author is very self-aware that her obsessive behavior is the fuel behind her work. The four years of her youth living in Pitt County informed her whole life. It took over her adolescence in being displaced and it’s taking over her adulthood as she tries to unmask this location and tries to find the root of why she can’t let it go.
“I arrowed through Google Maps on Street View; I narrowed to my neighborhood on Airbnb and broke into houses, wandering through rooms I’d been in and houses I’d biked past.”
It almost seems as if Langley Mahler has gone too far in her quest to search her past. That thought brings great tension and gives the reader a moment to consider their own past and how they handle researching who they used to be. Not everyone will go as far as tracking down specific homes and looking at photos on Airbnb. This adds to the level of obsession Langley Mahler has and it adds to her strong desire to make sense of a confusing time. It’s as if she has no choice to but go to extremes in order to find what she’s looking for. This plays into her as a writer and an artist. She will go to great lengths in her self-discovery.
Curing Season pushes boundaries on what a memoir and an essay collection can look like. There is no one specific way to write an essay or an essay collection and Langley Mahler lets her exploration of form provide a new way to explore the self.
The Curing Season is available now from West Virginia University Press.
About the Reviewer:
Ashley is an MFA graduate of the University of Nebraska-Omaha with a focus on creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey and in (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic, as well as in the Place Where You Live column for Orion Magazine. She is currently writing a memoir of the aftermath of her (step)father’s paralysis while her teenage mother tries to keep custody of her and graduate high school.