Franklin Countys First News

Words on Words: Mill Town

Words like powerful and searing came into the lexicon to describe a book like Kerri Arsenault's Mill Town. This unsparing, relentless account of the price paid for Rumford/Mexico's prosperity will leave no reader unmoved. A nationally-acclaimed book loaded with both local interest and timely environmental issues of broad concern, Mill Town is hard to put down. Arsenault's flair for language and penetrating eye for human interplay are everywhere evident in this riveting and important book.

To find out more about Mill Town it was our clear duty to check in with its author...

Kenny: Mill Town's subtitle Reckoning With What Remains is operative both figuratively and literally. When toxicity is a living metaphor does it permeate that duality by its nature?

Kerri: What remains refers to the legacies we leave behind, whether in family, the environment, or our DNA. It also speaks to the other kinds of legacies I address in the book, like what Hugh Chisholm (the mill’s founder) left behind, or the legacy of Ed Muskie (who grew up in Rumford), or the long-lasting legacies of resource extraction, and more. And what I hope I accomplished in this book is a reckoning—rather than answers or prescriptive-- with those legacies.

Kenny: St. Anselm was a big one for thinking about the intended audience of a book. How did you manage writing for both the audience here in central Maine who know Rumford and Mexico, and the larger audience from away, as it were?

Kerri Arsenault, author of "Mill Town".

Kerri: While I didn’t concisely consider the audience when I first started writing this book, I couldn’t ignore the hallways that opened up to other hallways of concern. There are SO many mill towns across the US and the world, and those communities face many issues Rumford and Mexico face: economic crisis, manufacturing decline, food insecurity, love of family and home, suspicion of governments and leaders who have led us astray or who ignored our decades-long concerns, the voicelessness of disenfranchised groups, the link between pollution and disease, the want of a better life for our children, how leaving home can be as complicated as living there... None of these issues are provincial.

Kenny: I wonder if you can talk a bit about one of the more compelling and complex figures in the book, Dr. Edward Martin. I admit he was of particular interest me in that I sold Thunder From The Mountains at DDG for years and bought my copies from Terry.

Kerri: He was someone who strove almost heroically and tragically to help his community, yet he also participated in the abuse, at least emotionally and mentally, toward those he loved most. In that way, he mirrors the relationship our community had with the mill. As Terry said to me "Why is it that everyone wants to protect the abuser?”

Also, as I show over and over, people and the issues I approach are complex. Nobody is a hero and nobody is the bad guy (even the mill). In other words,Things are never black and white, and that goes for the working class. We all need to take a step back from our political affiliations, our emotions, and our binary suppositions to consider interrogating the nuance in the gray zones. And we need to listen to each other. Listen to what we are really saying to each other above and beyond the containers we live within.

The mills in Rumford.

Kenny: Personally, maybe because the Lord of the Rings is a desert island book for me, my thoughts turn to Mordor when I drive by the mill. It really is an unusual, otherworldly presence. Is there a place in a book it evokes for you?

Kerri: The meat packing facilities in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Kenny: Closure, the coming together of the past and the present, is a real challenge for MIll Town, as you movingly note at the opening of the book's Coda. Did you end up where you had expected or intended?

Kerri: Yes and no. Yes, in that time moves forward in the book, and I progressed in my knowledge, my grief, my frustration, my acceptance, my own self-awareness, but like the river that runs through our towns, sometimes my path took unexpected turns. I went with the current.

Kenny: If you could change one thing about the history you engage with in Mill Town what would it be?

Kerri: One thing? That’s not fair! I would have asked my grandparents and my father more questions. Also, I would eliminate the use of chlorine- based bleaching agents in the paper making process. While we can’t change what’s been done in the past, we can change our future. And a future without chlorine- based bleaching agents is a healthier one, indeed.

Kenny: Thanks so much!

Kerri: It was a pleasure thanks for the great questions.

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