When I was in sixth grade, I carried with me everywhere a small bucket-shaped purse woven from colorful sarape fabric. A thin leather drawstring cord secured the contents, which included, among the chapsticks and small hairbrush, notes to and from all my friends. They were written on notebook paper and folded into small rectangles or triangles. These notes held crafted versions of ourselves: all our secrets, all our trash talk, all our rumors. I spent hours each evening writing and responding to them; my correspondence has never been so prolific since. I don’t remember what happened to them exactly, although I’m sure I threw them away when they became too numerous to hide from my mother, who would surely read them if she found them. I haven’t spoken to those friends in years, and I haven’t lived in that part of the world in decades. The purse is gone too. We lose track of things and people over time. But back then, they felt like everything.
Reading Curing Season by Kristine Langley Mahler is a little like finding that purse filled with notes. In this collection, the author sifts through the artifacts of her middle school life and sorts them into innovative essay forms like containers, exploring themes of home and coming of age, but also subverting the idea that a home can be anywhere you make it.
In one piece, she writes about her father’s woodworking projects in paragraphs mapped out on the page like they’re sitting on display inside a shadowbox. In another, she compares adolescent friendships to finger traps with lists filled with repetitive language. Every piece is different. The essays, which come together with the same completeness of a memoir, feel not quite like going back to adolescence but like looking back on it with a sharp eye to examine the small aches of growing up, moving away and living life. How it was both a definitive time and a time that I had been fine to forget about until my kids reached that age. Mahler’s book shows just how rich in material that era of life truly is.
In the essay “Fixed Plot,” a ten-year-old Mahler has just moved from the Willamette Valley in Oregon to eastern North Carolina. It’s August, when the heat is stifling and the tobacco farms are in the throes of harvest and curing seasons. Her descriptions of the town and her early days there perfectly capture the feeling of stepping out of one place and finding oneself in another. This feeling is even bigger when you’re a kid, I think, because kids don’t control where their parents decide to move. In the author’s case, her parents moved for academic jobs, and Mahler meets her new place with deep curiosity. The tall narrow pines remind her of home, but almost everything else about her suburban neighborhood is different and interesting. “I was enthralled by the history of my new homeland,” she writes. “I didn’t know that it hadn’t actually become my new homeland. That my sheer presence in a place didn’t convey belonging. It didn’t take long to learn.”
Part of the town’s history was preserved in a graveyard in the parking lot of one of the two malls. The graves belonged to the families who had founded the town and were marked for their historic significance even as suburbs grew up around them. Of course, today malls are mall culture graveyards, but in the 1990s, malls were where people went to purchase identity. The identity Mahler is most curious about is that of a girl from her school she calls X, whose ancestors are buried in the mall graveyard. According to Mahler’s research, X’s forebears purchased the family property in Greenville in 1747 and have been living there, in a white plantation house with pillars, ever since. When Mahler looks X up on Facebook years later, the former classmate is a receptionist, still living in the same town, still as uninteresting as she was when Mahler kind of knew her as a kid. But the friction of fitting in isn’t just that some families have been in Greenville for over two hundred years and have streets named after them and historic graves next to the mall; there’s a sense of community and locality to the place that Mahler can’t quite penetrate. The new teacher loses interest when Mahler explains that she’s from Wilson Elementary in Oregon, not Wilson, North Carolina, forty miles down the road. She’s the only girl who doesn’t know all the other girls would be participating in cotillion. And all of this makes her awkward years even more so.
Since Mahler left Greenville—she only spent four years there—the town has since swelled with newcomers, obscuring but never completely erasing its history. And by the end of the essay, Mahler’s fixation with that left-out feeling hasn’t really subsided either. “The joke is on me for imagining that an ancestral history in Pitt County would have allowed me to transform from a yearning adolescent into a woman who securely knew where she belonged,” she writes. “Of course I know where I belong. Yet I’m still jealously whittling facts into daggers, obsessing about a place paved over by a history I could not sink my claws into.”
The essay, like so many in Curing Season, is a fun, strange play on nostalgia and belonging that embodies something so middle school that it aches. When I first started reading the collection, which are called “artifacts” rather than essays, it seemed like a strange time of one’s life to return to and unpack so carefully. The middle school years, now that I’m a parent of some people going through them now, are some of the craziest. My children have surprised me most, detested me most during these years. They see the world though a lens of outrage, a sense of righteousness, a heightened awareness of their peers. They are hard, fitful years that are, it turns out, fascinating under Mahler’s eye. They are treacherous times, navigated by half-formed, hormone-soaked brains, perfect years to excavate.
In another piece, “Out Line,” Mahler writes about an imagined trip back to Greenville in the form of a project pitch that presents a methodology, outlines a timeline, and asks for funding like a grant or business proposal for the essay itself. Our places and our times make us who we are, and the hard years often stick to us in strange ways. For anyone who has moved away from a formative place, there’s always a part that wonders what it would be like to go back, to see what’s changed and what hasn’t, to run into familiar faces decades on. And perhaps everyone has, just out of curiosity, priced out Airbnbs, played out the what-ifs and maybe-one-days. They are the online rabbit holes we fall into during in-between moments and then forget as soon as real life gets busy again. Mahler describes her fixation as “a trip I have taken for years; the errata litters my Google search history.”
Her longing for the place is palpable, even as her preadolescent agonies are embarrassing, cringe-worthy memories. “Nowhere hurts like the place you learned to be hurt; nowhere hurts like the place you were a preadolescent,” she writes. “I will not think of the empty stairwell where I stopped to remove the sports bra I did not need, wiping at my underwear with jean pocket corners that I inspected, looking for red and never finding it.”
The author is not afraid to bare herself in these half-formed stages—her quirks, her prejudices, her cruelties, her over-dramas, artifacts of a version of herself that perhaps no longer exists. She shows us around, introduces us to her friends, and obsesses about the people they’ve all become. Her weirdnesses became my own, her longings and obsessions familiar. She shows us how the artifacts add up to a person, how closely connected we become to places whether we fit there or not. How do we lose so many people, so many versions of ourselves?
It’s a lovely and clever book of essays that add up to an intricate depiction of what must surely be everyone’s oddest time. Looking back, I realize that I’m not so different now from the kid I was then. Still a little awkward. Still listening to the same music. And, if it weren’t lost to time, I’d still like to carry that purse.