Adolescence is a time of instability, when the tremors of heightened emotions and a changing body shake the ground beneath one's feet. In Kristine Langley Mahler's "Curing Season," that sense of dislocation was heightened by her family's move from a college town in Oregon to the coastal plains of North Carolina.

When she first arrives, the pine trees remind her of the evergreen hills she has left behind even as their differences tell her that she's a stranger. "While the pine trees felt like home, they only formed a facsimile of forest; they stood in clusters like gossipy girls outside the cafeteria … boughs whispering a language to each other that you had to have been there long enough to understand. Slurred, drawled words confused, fuzzy meanings, phrases I'd never heard before, a code I wanted to crack."

Mahler spent four years living in Pitt County, and as she pulls together scraps of memory, photos, yearbooks and other memories, she sets out to assemble them into a coherent narrative. Instead, she gives readers something much more satisfying. In essays that take the shape of a curiosity cabinet, a photo scrapbook, a numbered list and even a grafted tree, Mahler entices the reader to get closer, to notice the fascinating details in a girl's life.

Joan Didion once wrote that we "tell ourselves stories in order to live." But those stories we tell that give us meaning also negate the parts too jagged to fit. For Mahler, these sharp parts are like the ancient megaladon shark's teeth she finds in a nearby creek bank. Memories of fractious friendships still bite. She aches with regret over the loss of a best friend with whom she can never make amends.

In a series of paragraphs, she recaptures the sensual details of each friend's house, the way one smelled of cigarette smoke, another of bologna, the tile walls in a friend's bathroom, the double beanbag chair in another's bedroom. Her prose makes these memories tactile, so vivid that it rocketed me back to my own girlhood.

Mahler pulls back her examination of these exquisite details to show readers the wider view. To do so, she looks at the "Chronicles of Pitt County," an assemblage of histories written by members of Pitt County families. Here Mahler also finds tales in which the difficult parts — especially Pitt County's history of enslavement and exploitation — are smoothed over by folks who derive meaning and identity from the family stories they tell. "If the residents could write their own versions of their histories and then have them codified into truth, couldn't I do the same?" she asks.

In wrestling with the answer to that question, "Curing Season" offers a way of writing memoir that feels closer to the truth of a life. Rather than a narrative smoothed like a comforting blanket, Mahler beckons readers to enter her roadside museum of adolescence. Treasures await.

Lorraine Berry is a writer in Oregon.

Curing Season

By: Kristine Langley Mahler.

Publisher: West Virginia University Press, 192 pages, $21.99.