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Making money out of paper, making paper out of trees – ‘Mill Town’

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Parts of who we are tend to be defined by the places we’re from. We are more than our hometowns, but forever OF our hometowns. And telling our own stories of those places can be far more complicated than we anticipate.

Kerri Arsenault’s “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99) is her story, a story about her hometown and her family’s life there. It is also about the place in a grander sense, defined as it is by the presence of industry and the town’s risk/reward relationship with it. Telling the tale of her family is inextricably entangled with the story of the town – and you can’t tell the story of the town without telling the story of the mill.

What follows is a memoir, yes, a remembrance of a small-town childhood. But it is also a thorough look at the lasting impact – positives and negatives alike – that the town’s reliance on and acceptance of the mill has had on those who live there. It’s a story of the compromises we’re willing to make – and the untruths we’re willing to tell ourselves – in the name of perceived prosperity.

Arsenault grew up in the small town of Mexico, Maine, a place that – along with neighboring town Rumford – owed its existence to the presence of the paper mill. For over a century, mill operations had been in effect there on the shores of the Androscoggin river. The mill was the primary source of employment in the area for generations of people; parents and children working shoulder to shoulder for years. As the mill went, so too went the town.

But Mexico’s economic fortunes declined in the years following Arsenault’s departure. Automation, foreign competition, efficiency efforts – all factors in the gradual erosion of the mill’s effectiveness, both in turning a profit for its owners and providing a living for its employees. And when she returns, seeking to tell her own stories of the town, she begins to realize the hidden and steep price many paid for those boom years.

A lot of people who lived there got sick. Really sick. Arsenault’s father – a 45-year employee of the mill – was among them. It was an open secret that the occurrence of cancer in the area was magnitudes higher than elsewhere in the region. It was so prevalent that there was even a nickname – “Cancer Valley.” And yet – no one seemed willing to fully engage with the notion that the place churning with chemicals and toxic processes could be responsible.

Arsenault began with the story of her family, looking for information about her ancestry and digging into the historical record. But the story of her family – and of so many other families in town – was intertwined with that of the mill. And the more she learned about the mill and its history, the more questions she had.

Over the course of years, Arsenault continued following this story wherever it led her. Whether it was inward into a place of familial introspection or outward into an investigation into corporate practices, Arsenault told the tale as it came – secrets and all. The end result is “Mill Town,” a captivating and unforgettable book unlike anything I’ve ever read.

For stretches, it is pure memoir – and first-rate memoir at that. Arsenault’s accounts of her life, both in Mexico and in her years away, are mesmerizing. Evoking that particular flavor of small-town Maine life is difficult to do with any sort of verisimilitude; even those who have lived it can’t always manage. Arsenault has no such problem, crafting a portrait that is fiercely proud and beautiful, peeling paint and all.

In other places, the book is a compelling and taut work of industrial investigation. Arsenault is meticulous in her research, ultimately building a warts-and-all look at the history of the mill. Good, bad and ugly are presented, all of it with receipts; no aspect of life in town is fully separate from the mill – the economic, environmental and cultural impact is massive, with ripples circling out from that papermaking central point in all directions. The future … and the past.

Along the way, these stories fold in on one another, mingling and connecting before branching off and coming back together yet again. Like a river seeking new paths to travel, Arsenault’s narrative moves with steady relentlessness, pressing ever forward. There’s a sense of constant motion to the prose, even as it relates to the relative stagnation of the place itself.

There are long shadows cast in “Mill Town.” Arsenault proves unafraid of the many ghosts of Mexico, leaning into the bleaker aspects of the town’s past, present and future when warranted. Truth is vital when writing a book like this one, and the truth isn’t always pretty. Or easy. That said, this is also a book of celebration, a story that fully acknowledges and embraces the bright benefits of small-town life.

“Mill Town” is a memoir that is more than a memoir. It is a book about the bargains struck between towns and the industries that sustain them. It is about the good and the bad and the willingness to endure the latter to gain the former. That paradoxical dynamic is central to “Mill Town,” a relationship that defines many Maine towns … though not as many as it did once upon a time.

This is a book about many things. It’s about one woman’s small-town childhood. It’s about American industry and its impact on the world around it. It’s about choices and compromises. It’s about going home again. It’s about the dangers – seen and unseen – that can come with misplaced trust. It’s about shifting demographics and the fading middle class.

“Mill Town” is haunting and heartbreaking, charming and funny … and utterly exceptional.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 September 2020 11:42


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