Investigating a slow burn toxic disaster through the lens of memoir
Kerri Arsenault’90 spent her childhood in Mexico, Maine, in the shadow of Rumford Mill. The paper mill provided good-paying jobs, but Arsenault later discovered the price: a damaged environment and serious health problems caused by the mill’s toxic processes, lending the region nicknames like “Cancer Valley.” The mill operated for years with impunity and the community’s tacit support.
Arsenault’s debut book Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains fuses memories of her hometown with an investigation of dozens of cancer deaths among former mill employees.
The book attracted a “top 10 books of 2020” designation from the Chicago Tribune, and the National Book Critics Circle Award chose it as a finalist for the John Leonard Prize. Closer to home, Beloit’s Professor of English Chris Fink is teaching Mill Town this spring in his environmental writing course.
Q: Congratulations on the publication of Mill Town. What has the book’s reception been like? Describe your emotions since its publication.
In my hometown, it’s been nothing but positives. I was at a virtual event at the University of Maine-Farmington recently, and my old high school principal was there. He said, “Kerri,”—he started crying— “We’re so proud of you.” That was really touching. So pride is one thing. I’ve heard from so many people across the country with stories about living near industry and the diseases that they or their families have gotten, so I’ve become this human Magic 8 Ball. But I can take it; I just listen. As far as my own emotions, this is not my suffering. This is bearing witness and trying to understand.
Q: Have you heard from elected officials or Rumford Mill representatives?
The reception has been good, but there’s a silent faction, which I don’t know how to interpret. The silence has come from the mill, from Maine’s governor, Janet Mills, and our two senators [Angus King and Susan Collins]. I haven’t heard from them, but I know they got books. The silence is problematic because those are the people who can actually do something.
Q. What’s one thing you hope happens in Maine and elsewhere because of this book? Do you see it happening yet?
My hope is that people will read it. Part of my job as a writer is to reveal this, not prescribe anything. But I hope that people in small towns vote for their leaders —whether it’s state, federal, or local leaders—go to their water board meetings, go to their boring town meetings. And if you can’t find anybody to vote for, run yourself. Policy-level is the way this can really change. The other way is market demand. If all the publishers and universities in the United States demanded chlorine-free paper, then the mills would make it. [Arsenault’s book is printed on chlorine-free paper.]
Q: Mill Town is both a memoir and a work of investigative journalism. Do you think of the book as one genre or the other, and if so, did you set out to write one or the other?
I probably set out to write an investigation. The thing with toxic disasters is that they don’t really have a centralized location or a starting point. In the book, you follow me through the investigation, so you get to pick. I think different people read it for different things. It’s also cultural criticism, attempting to answer why America’s working class, or toxic disasters, are taken out of the conversation.
Q: How can your story be applied to communities facing environmental racism?
I look at environmental injustice along socioeconomic lines. Republicans have deliberately split the working class along racial divides. What’s relevant in my book is the historic treatment of Acadians [descendants of French settlers deported from Canada’s Maritime provinces in the 18th century. Many, like the author’s family, now live in Maine]. There are applicable lessons in the strategies that the imperialists used to harm us.
Q: You left Maine in 1985 to attend Beloit. What was that transition like?
I found people incredibly welcoming, but I write in the book about my friends making fun of my accent and how it made me feel dumb and unsophisticated, and about trying to assimilate via my clothing. I was always an observer, and I would just watch, adapt, and adopt. I was a first-generation college student. Beloit had programs for us, but I had no idea what I was doing. What I really did at Beloit was learn how to dig beneath the surface of things. That’s what I remember.
Q: Which Beloit memories stand out?
I lived at the Womyn’s Center [still standing as the Feminist Collective] for my last couple of years, and that was wonderful. I made such incredible connections with women there, and it was like having a constant writers’ group. I was also the editor of the Round Table and that was pretty wild.
I’ve become really close friends with people that I was sort of friends with at Beloit, but wasn’t in touch with, in the intervening years. Heather Wichman Marx’92 and I started talking on Facebook when I was working on the first part of my book, and she said, “Send me pieces; I’ll read them for you.” She was instrumental in helping me build the first part of Mill Town. We hadn’t talked to each other since 1990!