In this powerful investigative memoir, book critic Arsenault examines her relationship with Mexico, Maine, her now-downtrodden hometown. In 2009, Arsenault returned there from Connecticut after her grandfather died; while in this town (pop. 2,600) that owes its existence to a nearby 118-year-old paper mill, she decided to resume research on the Arsenault family’s French-Canadian lineage. She quickly learns of the environmental havoc wrought by the mill, which earned Mexico the nickname of “Cancer Alley,” and uncovers the many obituaries citing people who “died after a battle with cancer” believed to be caused by ash emitted by the mill (dubbed “mill snow”) that also crept into her family’s home. From there, Arsenault embarks on a decade-long probe into the environmental abuses of a company that supported her family for three generations. “The legacies powerful men construct almost always emerge from the debris of other people’s lives,” she writes, yet her inquiry only deepened her bond with Mexico (“We can and probably should go back to confront what made us leave, what made us fall in and out of love with the places that create us, or to see what we left behind”). Arsenault paints a soul-crushing portrait of a place that’s suffered “the smell of death and suffering” almost since its creation. This moving and insightful memoir reminds readers that returning home—“the heart of human identity”—is capable of causing great joy and profound disappointment.
*Finalist for the 2020 National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for Best First Book *Winner of the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award “Combining personal history with investigative reporting, Arsenault pays loving homage to her family’s tight-knit Maine town even as she examines the cancers that have stricken so many residents.”— The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice) “Part beautiful memoir and regional history, part investigative journalism, part environmental diatribe countered by a poetic ode to place. In short, it’s a fraught love letter to that fragile American entity, the small, rural, working-class town….Arsenault’s prose shines…She has done immense and important research and delivered an engaging tale that deserves a close read.”—Stephanie Hunt, The Post and Courier (Charleston) “Trenchant and aching…What Arsenault has provided is a model of persistence, thoughtful reflection and vividly human personal narrative in uncovering a heartbreaking story that could be told in countless American towns, along countless American rivers.”—Steve Paul, Minneapolis Star-Tribune “Arsenault combines memoir with investigative journalism in this tale of the toxic paper mill at the center of her Maine hometown, an area now nicknamed Cancer Valley.”— People magazine “Though you assume another hand-wringing over environmental deregulation, what unspools is much richer and more affecting. Using her father’s death as catalyst, [Arsenault] digs into state history, the town’s decline and the mill’s legacy. She brings the outrage of a furious native, tearing down years of “Vacationland” tourism, yet deeply homesick for the place she once knew. What gave her hometown its meaning once—industry, deregulation, community—is precisely what devoured it.”—Christopher Borrelli, The Chicago Tribune “ Mill Town is preoccupied with a poisonous irony: Rumford’s citizens live and work in a place that makes them unwell… The scale of the problem and of the potential malfeasance could not be grander or more terrifying.”—Emily Cooke, The New York Times Book Review “With affection and concern, Mill Town recounts ‘Maine’s constant conundrum, an American story, a human predicament.' In rural, working-class towns, the presence of industry amounts to pollution, but its absence gives way to poverty. Within fence-line communities like Arsenault’s Mexico, prosperity and affliction are wholly intertwined.”—Andru Okun, The Boston Globe “ Mill Town poses hard questions that challenge the tacit acceptance of ecological destruction as the price of economic health.”— Los Angeles Times “Lyrical and compelling prose... What Arsenault presents, with mesmerizing lyricism and endearing honesty, is the story of a dying town wedded to a paper mill that once anchored the local economy while also bringing pollution and cancer. Mill Town puts forth larger questions of the human relationship to the environment; of the violence done to the land that eventually translates into the devastation of the people that live on it. Arsenault’s loyalty is not simply to a limited idea of health that would be typified by paying the ailing damages but on the injustice done to the land on a larger scale.”—Rafia Zakaria, The Baffler “A valuable addition to the literature of New England’s industrial legacy, something many residents have either forgotten or choose to ignore, to the region’s detriment.”—Alex Hanson, Los Angeles Review of Books “Reportage, memoir, and the refusal to seek easy answers clasp hands to bring us a searing, compassionate story of people rooted in and committed to a place that keeps breaking their bodies and hearts…With love and sorrow, wed by eloquent prose that moves with keen pacing, Arsenault traces the story of her family and the many families who have been battered along with their despoiled environment. This book is an essential answer to the urgent question: “At what cost comes progress?”—Garnette Cadogan, LitHub “ Mill Town is a rich, rewarding read that defies easy categorization. Despite the gravity of its subject, Mill Town is, at its heart, a love letter to the people and places of Arsenault’s childhood and a plea for a cleaner, brighter future.”—Jessica Lahey, Air Mail “In this masterful debut, the author creates a crisp, eloquent hybrid of atmospheric memoir and searing exposé... Bittersweet memories and a long-buried atrocity combine for a heartfelt, unflinching, striking narrative combination.”— Kirkus Reviews (starred) “[A] powerful, investigative memoir....Arsenault paints a soul-crushing portrait of a place that’s suffered 'the smell of death and suffering' almost since its creation. This moving and insightful memoir reminds readers that returning home"the heart of human identity"is capable of causing great joy and profound disappointment.” — Publisher's Weekly (starred) “Arsenault's compelling debut asks readers to consider how relationships between humans and nature impact our bodies and environment....[A] powerful memoir.”— Library Journal “An imposing work of narrative nonfiction...Arsenault's account is enlivened by vivid prose, often coolly analytical and yet deeply lyrical. Mexico's melancholy storyone that's mirrored today in thousands of struggling small towns across the U.S.comes to life in Arsenault's sympathetic, but unfailingly clear-eyed, telling.”—Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf Awareness “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. A riveting blend of reportage and memoir reveals the secrets of a paper mill town.”—Michael Berry, Maine Sunday Telegram “For stretches, it is pure memoir – and first-rate memoir at that….In other places, the book is a compelling and taut work of industrial investigation [and] Arsenault is meticulous in her research. Mill Town is haunting and heartbreaking, charming and funny … and utterly exceptional.”—Alan Adams, The Maine Edge
Asenault's compelling debut asks readers to consider how relationships between humans and nature impact our bodies and the environment. In her hometown of Mexico, ME, is a paper mill that employed many of the community's residents, including three generations of her family. Although the mill brought economic stability to the area, it wreaked havoc on the surrounding lands and waters. Owing to the high number of cancers and rare physical ailments, the town was dubbed "Cancer Valley." In this powerful memoir, Arsenault dredges up the town's history, interviews locals and family members, and pores over environmental reports to present the multifaceted issues facing the town, including a diminished working class, environmental destruction, and corporate corruption and greed. Included are stories about her father going on strike twice, and the negotiations that resulted. She also explores the mill for herself in order to begin learning about what life was like for machinists. Her research rounds out the story of her family, who like many families in the area, had lives intertwined with the mill and are now facing a reckoning.
VERDICT This story will resonate with readers grappling with similar crises in their hometowns and is a recommended addition to memoir collections. —Mattie Cook, Flat River Community Lib., MI
Arsenault reflects on her serene hometown and the cloaked environmental corruption plaguing it.
The author, a National Books Critics Circle board member and book review editor at
Orion, grew up in Mexico, Maine, a small town fortified by the Androscoggin River. She writes poignantly of growing up in a large nuclear family surrounded by the town’s dense forestlands. Her father and grandfather worked at the local paper mill, an entity that economically grounded the town and employed a large percentage of its residents, many of whom remained blind to the ever changing world around them. “Monumental philosophical ideas,” writes Arsenault, “were surfacing across America—feminism, environmentalism—however, there were no movements in Mexico but for people walking across the mill’s footbridge to work.” Underneath Mexico’s serene veneer festered a secret that the author began to investigate with steely determination in 2009. While visiting to attend a funeral, Arsenault dug into the town’s history and the Arsenault family tree, both of which were riddled with cancer deaths. Expanding her research outward, she scoured town documents and interviewed family, childhood friends, and surviving townspeople to uncover proof that Mexico and the surrounding area had been dubbed “cancer valley,” with generations of families suffering terminal illnesses. Arsenault disturbingly chronicles how the paper mill released carcinogenic chemicals into the atmosphere and dumped them at the edge of the river, and she shows how the malfeasance was buried in bureaucratic red tape, EPA coverups, and outright lies even as Mexico continued to suffer a “never-ending loop of obituaries.” In this masterful debut, the author creates a crisp, eloquent hybrid of atmospheric memoir and searing exposé. She writes urgently about the dire effects the mill’s toxic legacy had on Mexico’s residents and the area’s ecology while evocatively mining the emotional landscape of caretaking for aging parents and rediscovering the roots of her childhood.
Bittersweet memories and a long-buried atrocity combine for a heartfelt, unflinching, striking narrative combination.
This is a listen for anyone interested in small-town America, how it’s changed, and why it matters. Kerri Arsenault narrates her own work and does a fine job sharing personal stories of growing up in the mill town of Mexico, Maine. As corporate greed and malfeasance abound, the community is torn between the mill jobs they desperately need and their struggles with health problems, including a high incidence of cancer. Though Arsenault may not be a professional narrator, her passion for these important stories comes through with just the right amount of sincerity. She never overdoes her heartbreaking depiction of the price a community must pay because of a corporation that cares only about the bottom line. This is an important listen, told well. J.P.S. © AudioFile 2020, Portland, Maine
SEPTEMBER 2020 - AudioFile