The Conflicted Nostalgia of Growing Up in a Maine Mill Town

Four questions for the author of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains — and an audio excerpt from the book.

Rumford paper mill
Photo by Benjamin Williamson
Stream an excerpt from Mill Town, courtesy of Macmillan Audio.

When Kerri Arsenault was growing up in Mexico, Maine, nothing loomed larger than the Rumford paper mill across the Androscoggin River, which gave her small town a measure of prosperity and security, even as mill waste polluted the river and locals nicknamed the area “Cancer Valley.” In her new investigative memoir, hailed as “a complex love letter to a hometown,” Arsenault begins grappling with that tension, a century-old legacy that shaped her family and community.

In the September issue of Down East, we excerpted the first chapter of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, and we asked Arsenault about what drew her to revisit Mexico, its charms, and its afflictions.

Photo by Benjamin Williamson

Mill Town is, in large part, about the potential impacts of mill pollution on the environment and community health — particularly your family’s. But do you also feel a fondness for your hometown?

The book is about asking, how do you love a place that doesn’t always love you back? How do you love a town that killed your father and your grandfather and your great-grandfather, but that also gave me what I have? There was a time when I didn’t want to go back, when I thought, oh, it’s so boring or, you know, it’s so stinky. But the more I went back, the more I began to look at it in a different way and to love it again in a different way. I was reminded that the people there are amazing.

You write that the book began as a genealogical research project. Were you surprised it led where it did?

I thought I would find some answers either to my family tree or, eventually, to the connection between mill pollution and disease. I didn’t find answers to either, but I learned that those two things are connected. It was like trying to connect the dots to a lot of things, but more dots just kept appearing. 

Mill Town, by Kerri Arsenault
To be published September 1, 2020, by St. Martin’s Press.

How recognizable do you suppose your “mill town” is for readers from different backgrounds?

So many people either grew up in a small town like this, or they grew up near a town like this, or they’ve driven through a town like this. Or maybe they’ve just lived near a mill or a coal mine or a fracking site. It’s almost uncanny how many people have a connection to this type of story. And then maybe there are people who live in New York City and hardly leave, and they might say, “Oh my god, I never knew that was happening.” Even my book agent told me, “That’s not the Maine I thought I knew.”

What do you hope for struggling mill towns like Mexico?

My hope is that they can reinvent themselves. There are huge factions of people who want things to change, but there are a lot of people that don’t, and I worry that struggle is just going to continue. I’d like to see people start having conversations about what comes next.