I grabbed a copy of Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault because I was interested in its focus on Maine’s Mexico and Rumford. And it is all of that, and so much more.
Kerri grew up in Mexico at a time when many mill workers and residents died of cancers and other fatal illnesses caused by pollutants the mill put in the air and water. A bunch of Kerri’s family members died of these illnesses, including her father who worked in the mill. The area’s nickname became Cancer Valley.
The paper mill’s owners always denied their pollutants were causing these illnesses, even when Rumford and Mexico had the most cases in Maine. Kerri eventually married and moved to another state, but she returned often to her mother’s home in Mexico, trying to stop the mill’s dangerous pollutants.
It was during that time that a friend and I fished the Androscoggin River, which the mill filled with dangerous pollutants. We’d often catch dozens of bass just below the mill, but I guess it’s a good thing we never ate any!
While a lot of Kerri’s book focuses on these issues, there are also a lot of good stories about her family and friends. Her focus on the good things about growing up in a small Maine town mirror my own experiences.
The book’s subtitle is Reckoning with What Remains, and there’s plenty of good things, but Ben Fountain’s quote on the front page may be what you’ll remember: “What kind of life have we made for ourselves when the very thing that sustains us also kills us?”
But it’s a quote on the back of the book that really describes it best as a “complex love letter to a hometown.”