When Kerri Arsenault left Maine for college in Wisconsin, she figured that, except for short visits, she would never go back to live in Mexico, her hometown. But the small rural community, centered around a paper mill on the Androscoggin, kept pulling her back.

Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

In “Mill Town,” her new non-fiction account of her years in Maine, she attempts to untangle the ties that bind her to Mexico, discovering secrets about the mill, the river and her own family history. “Mill Town” is a riveting account of dreams denied and assumptions betrayed, a timely and timeless portrait of working class life.

With her husband, an officer in the Coast Guard, Arsenault led a peripatetic early adult existence, moving to such locales as the Netherland Antilles. But when her father, who had just retired, began displaying the lung-hardening symptoms of asbestosis, Arsenault made an effort to return to New England and grapple with the legacy of her father’s decades-long employer.

Locals in Mexico liked to point toward the mill’s smokestacks from which nauseating, smelly smoke rose and say, “That’s the smell of money.” For a long time, that was a defensible assertion, even if the river ran with stinking foam and pulp. The good times didn’t last forever. New owners at the mill instituted what the union considered unfair labor practices. There’s a strike, then another, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and the results were a disappointment for all.

During her visits, Arsenault became intrigued by the town’s history and started to nose around by exploring her own ancestry, beginning with her great-great grandmother Obeline, for whom Arsenault could find no written evidence of her birth or death. That search led Arsenault into the tangle of her Acadian roots, French-speaking colonists who were forcibly expelled at the command of British colonel John Winslow and whose descendants ultimately came to the mill as cheap labor.

Centuries after the expulsion, Acadian descendants continue their struggle for respect and health. Arsenault writes,”I see the scars from those traumas inflicted by Colonel Winslow’s hand in my family tree, underdogs who survived while formidable efforts were made to snuff them out.”

Arsenault soon began hearing about unusually high rates of cancer. She received the diaries of Edward “Doc” Martin from his widow, Terry, and was confronted by decades of records of cancers, respiratory and blood diseases. Terry Martin showed her a videotape of a documentary titled “Cancer Valley,” which directly accused the paper mill of causing cancer clusters. Arsenault was galvanized by the documentary. These were the people with whom she grew up. Why did no one seem to take seriously the notion that they were living in a place dangerously tainted by dioxin and other toxic chemicals?

A byproduct of the paper-making bleaching process, dioxin is a persistent organic pollutant, resisting the normal processes of degradation in the environment and in the human body. Arsenault asks, “When did it start, this fever for making things so white? Especially things that needn’t be, or when you have the technology to use less harmful processes…”

Having grown up in the midst of environmental toxicity, enjoying the comforts of close-knit working-class family, Arsenault has mixed feelings about Vacationland. She writes, “I’m tethered to Maine by the same sense of belonging, but also by a sometimes paralyzing ambivalence I wrestle to understand – an inexplicable love for Maine and what it represents, even if some of those things are false.”

With damning clarity, Arsenault uncovers hints of what has actually been dumped in the water, released in the air, packaged in bleached products such as tampons. In addition to asbestos, the river has been a toxic cocktail of dioxin, mercury and other poisons. Arsenault compiles a list of statistics that should have been obvious to anyone who took the time to investigate. They include, “(In 2012), cancer is the leading cause of death in Maine, and the Rumford paper mill is the top producer toxic chemical releases.”

When her father died, his death certificate listed esophageal cancer as his immediate cause of death, with other contributors including lung carcinoma, prostate cancer and coronary artery disease, without reference to his asbestosis.

Clear-eyed and self-deprecating, Arsenault is a welcome guide through the history of Mexico and Rumford, capturing the voices of their inhabitants, the stories they tell and the confidences they keep. She is tenacious in her search for answers, tender in her interactions with her mother and their neighbors.

She writes, “Our urge to talk belies all the times we couldn’t or didn’t because of all those prohibitions on language itself. Words hold weight when spoken. This is a language unto itself.”

Arsenault still wonders what damage has been done to herself, family, the town. “I found no smoking gun, no magic bullet, no conspiracy, no Shroud of Turin to condemn or acquit the mill, my family, or the state or federal government.”

Certainty is elusive, but Arsenault’s persistence is steadfast in this tough and intelligent mix of memoir and reportage.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry


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