One of O Magazine's Best Books of Fall 2020
“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
"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 riveting account of dreams denied and assumptions betrayed, a timely and timeless portrait of working class life... 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] tough and intelligent mix of memoir and reportage."Michael Berry, Portland Press Herald
"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
"In Mill Town, Kerri Arsenault has managed a literary hat trick, combining humanity, science, and capitalism, and the price paid not only by her own family in a single state, but across generations, industries, and geographies. She has laid out, in elegant prose and harrowing reportage, the price we may all pay, and in this, she has managed to create at once both a cautionary tale and a literary treasure." Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us
“[Mill Town] is about the better, more prosperous American life those industries afforded us before we fell ill, as well as the Devil’s bargain that made all this possible, maybe even inevitable. Mill Town is for anyone who’s ever wondered about the Calvinistic calculus whereby the elect become truly wealthy while the damned (read: poor, dark-skinned, newly arrived) find early graves.” Richard Russo, author of Chances Are… and Empire Falls
“Mill Town is a powerful, blistering, devastating book. Kerri Arsenault is both a graceful writer and a grieving daughter in search of answers and ultimately, justice. In telling the story of the town where generations of her family have lived and died, she raises important and timely questions.” Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance
“The book of a lifetime; a deep-drilling, quick-moving, heartbreaking story. Scathing and tender, it is written in a clear-running prose that lifts often into poetry, but comes down hard when it must. Through it all runs the river of Mill Town: sluggish, ancient, dangerous, freighted with America's sins. This is a book about residues and legacies; I know that Mill Town will stay with me for years to come.” Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland
"Arsenault’s pursuit of truth is as compassionate as it is relentless. The result, her book, is tender, enthralling, and, ultimately, devastating." Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Arrest
"Arsenault's relentless, unsparing exploration goes to the heart of American life, and I can think of no book that's more relevant to this moment in time than Mill Town." Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
"This fierce and impeccably researched work really got my blood boiling about the plunder mechanism of capitalism and its blow against life." Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion
"A vivid insight to the unbuilding of an American dream, this will be one of the major nonfiction books of a year in which the debate over what America is will rage." John Freeman, author of Dictionary of the Undoing and editor of Freeman’s
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.