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Kristine Langley Mahler, Curing Season: Artifacts, West Virginia University Press, 2022

Reviewed by Irene Cooper

[Review Guidelines]



You wake up in a make-your-own-nightmare in which you are weighted with tasks and dire responsibility, it's perennially your first day, and the instruction manual is in a language you think you know, but in a dialect with which you are entirely unfamiliar.

You are a girl on the cusp of adolescence who relocates from the cool saturated forests of Oregon to the languid pine sponge of North Carolina. You, extending a tendril, take and leave behind a creepsake from/at another girl's house to remember, to be remembered, to exist.

She is the best friend who is dead and who died before receiving your forgiveness, and so is incapable of being forgiven of that which you both endured, and so has rendered you incapable of forgiveness. She is also every cotillion-bound tween who will learn to dance as you won't, who can trace her forebearers to the slave economy of the 18th century and before, and who can visit them, even, at the graveyard in the parking lot of the good mall.

They are the official archivists, the keepers and begetters of the family names, of all the mythologies of a community entombed with its own fictions. They are the foundation on which you construct your palimpsest, impose your own histories.

We, post-adolescent, among the artifacts, navigate a past that recurs, and never cures, and cannot heal—the heat descends, and we breathe in the heat of a perpetual Curing Season.

Kristine Langley Mahler is the I of this memoir-in-essays, is the author and the story. In segmented, fragmented, innovated beauty, she implicates herself in the events of a past that persists in excluding her. Uprooted, she who cannot be replanted lives with her roots exposed, and thirsty.

Mahler's serious play with/on form and language allow for an elasticity of fact, and a greater, if in articulatable—incalculable—truth. These essays stack and shift in one's memory of them, from the reportage on visits and awkward overnights at various girls' homes, to the blunt description of casual cruelties designed to both mock and reject that which appears weak, even as the author admits to the very same weakness: a desire for intimacy, or mere inclusion. Some intimacies are too much.

The author considers the multiple meanings of shadowbox: it is a cubbied and nostalgic construction of histories and impressions; it is, from a military perspective, "a trapping of evidence" (21); and, to shadow box "is to swing at an imaginary foe" (19). The artifacts in Curing Season: Artifacts, whether physical objects or bits gleaned from Facebook or historical archives, are talismans, rich with the unknowable. Inside every box is another sealed box, vibrating with scaly aspiration. Mahler writes, "If you want to live, you have to adapt" (2), but what if conditions remain hostile no matter the modification?

Powerful is the dark mirror held up to class and race, as it endeavors to maintain the perspective of the child who, as part of desegregation efforts in the 1990s, rides the bus from her primarily white and affluent suburb to attend public school, and who calls the police when a group of Black boys linger on her porch when she is home sick from school.

In Curing Season: Artifacts, in the unnamable liminal space between girlhood and American adolescence, girls want something of each other, but not each other. Later, however, the author writes of her dead friend:

I loved you like I'd never loved a friend before because I'd never needed a friend so badly before. I'd never been so grateful to have someone willing to teach me how to shave my forearms so the hairs wouldn't appear dark. I couldn't know they would sun-bleach as I aged. (85)

Like the heady tobacco that hangs from the rafters in the heat, the age of becoming in this moment in the American South is stifling, the whole endeavor engineered to yield a pleasant and consumable product with a litany of long-term complications. Fortunately for the reader, Mahler maps a thoroughly inventive, engrossing, and heart-driven exploration of an unwitting adolescent peripatetic.