Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains
St. Martin’s Press
Early on in Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, Kerri Arsenault’s masterful combination of memoir and investigative reporting, the author is cautioned not to inquire too deeply into the history of Rumford and Mexico, those towns’ paper mills, or her own family tree. She’s warned to “play your cards close,” and from there the story evolves into a beguiling narrative of family, an inquiry into how an isolated region of the state became known as “Cancer Valley,” and an indictment of the xenophobic nature of rural life.
Originally published last fall, and now available in paperback, Mill Town won both the Rachel Carson Environmental Book Award and the Maine Literary Award for Nonfiction this year, a testament to the book’s stylistic breadth and power.
As the author peels back generational layers of deceit regarding the deadly impacts of the mills — including illegally buried mercury, drums filled with toxic chemicals placed in dumpsters, and poisonous effluents discharged into the Androscoggin River — a web of conspiratorial economic interests begins to take shape. Arsenault discovers that the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston is treating 28 patients for a rare form of cancer, and 12 of them lived within a 20-mile radius of Rumford. “The numbers were so skewed that Dana-Farber called [a local doctor] and asked, ‘What the hell’s going on in Rumford? We’re getting all these kids with cancer coming in from your town,’” she wrote.
Most locals were blasé about the health and environmental problems. When Arsenault asks her mother if she was bothered by the pollution, her mom responds, “It was the smell of money … plus we just had a lot of pride.” This parochial pride allowed an informal conspiracy of silence to gloss over the public health crisis in their midst. The mills, after all, offered a modicum of dignity to the workers in the form of higher wages than those offered by most other employers in the area.
When the mill pollution reached “a stinky zenith” in 1941, the locals finally demanded action. But the efforts of the Maine Legislature and courts proved futile in the face of the powerful paper industry, which often simply ignored court orders to reduce their industrial discharge. An editorial in the Lewiston Daily Sun opined back in those days, “Only the foolhardy would desire clean water at the expense of slashed payrolls, lost industry and a ghost town.” The irony here, as Arsenault’s book shows, is that that’s what happened even without strong environmental protections.
Arsenault brilliantly illustrates the tensions between capitalism and public health. She continually encounters resistance in the form of maddeningly unintelligible, and thus useless, “scientific” data; health “professionals” who are shills for the industry; and the apathy of the local community.
But Arsenault, a third-generation Mainer, refuses to be deterred. She spearheads another movement, this one to fight the intrusion of the predatory Nestlé corporation and its Poland Spring subsidiary, which wants access to the water under the valley. (Tellingly, the author was eventually ostracized by the group she helped form because she no longer lived in the area; at the time, Arsenault resided with her husband in Connecticut, which to the locals meant she was now from away.)
The mill in Rumford continues to operate, and new laws and regulations result in far less poison being spewed into the air and dumped into the Androscoggin than in past decades. The factory was bought and sold numerous times (it’s currently held by a Chinese conglomerate, Nine Dragons Paper), and this turmoil, combined with the deleterious effects of mechanization and the erosion of union power, has lowered morale and further eroded the sense that the mill is a vital part of the community.
But as one worker put in, when queried by Arsenault, “Of course I work there, what other options do I have?”