Going home to a papermaking past, Maine native embarks on a deeply personal journey

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When Kerri Arsenault graduated from high school in 1985, her plan was to leave the town of Mexico, and Maine, and become a war correspondent. She wanted to see the world and cover exciting things. She figured she knew all she needed to know her about hometown, located across the […]

When Kerri Arsenault graduated from high school in 1985, her plan was to leave the town of Mexico, and Maine, and become a war correspondent.

She wanted to see the world and cover exciting things. She figured she knew all she needed to know her about hometown, located across the Androscoggin River from Rumford. She knew that lives and livelihoods revolved around papermaking.

“Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” by Mexico, Maine, native Kerri Arsenault goes on sale Sept. 1. Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

But some 30 years later, she discovered there was a lot to learn about living in the shadow of the Rumford paper mill. She began to explore the possible health risks and the economic seesaw that holds lives in the balance. She found enough questions worth asking that she’s made Rumford and Mexico the basis of her first book, “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” from St. Martin’s Press. It goes on sale Sept. 1.

The book is an investigative memoir. Arsenault’s interest in her own family history led her to explore the possible link between pollutants produced in papermaking and incidents of cancer and cancer-related deaths among residents, including her father and grandfather.

“I think, growing up, I was just too close to it to really take an interest,” said Arsenault, 53, who lives in Roxbury, Connecticut. “In writing the book, I probably ended up with more questions than answers.”

The book was picked as one of the 20 Indie Next Great Reads for September by the American Booksellers Association. A Publisher’s Weekly review called it “moving and insightful” and said it reminds readers that returning home “is capable of causing great joy and profound disappointment.”

Arsenault, who is the book review editor at Orion magazine and a contributing editor at The Literary Hub, has more than two dozen book events scheduled between now and December listed on her website. On the day of the book’s release, Sept. 1, she’ll do a virtual event with Maine author Kate Christensen, organized by Print: A Bookstore in Portland and the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance.

A STORY TURNS PERSONAL

After high school, Arsenault attended Beloit College in Wisconsin and got a degree in creative writing. But she said she “didn’t know how” to become a journalist, so she took on a variety of jobs, including pizza making, paralegal work and home decorating. She came back to Maine and was working in Portland when she met her husband, Andrew Wood, who was stationed with the Coast Guard in Maine. They married in 2001, and because of Coast Guard assignments, they lived in a lot of places, including Sweden, Curacao and Oakland, California. She eventually graduated with a master’s degree in writing from the New School in New York.

A native of Mexico, Maine, Kerri Arsenault has written an “investigative memoir” about living in a paper mill town and dealing with the aftermath. Photo by Erik Madigan Heck

It wasn’t until 2007 that Arsenault started writing again, including reviewing books for online sites. In 2009, she came upon the idea for her book while visiting family in Maine. She wanted to do some research on her family, whose members had worked in the paper mill for at least three generations, men and women.

In talking to various town residents while searching for pieces of the town’s and her family’s history, Arsenault started to find out about the illnesses and struggles that people in Rumford and Mexico had endured. Her book is filled with personal stories, including that of a local doctor and his wife – Ed and Terry Martin – who fought hard to bring the risks to light.

It was personal for Arsenault, too. Her maternal grandmother had worked in the mill sorting room, and died of complications from colon cancer in 1988. Her paternal grandfather died in 1969, at age 63, from a form of stomach cancer and had worked at least 30 years in the mill, bleaching paper, Arsenault said.

In a chapter called “End of the Line” she writes of her father, Thomas Arsenault, who died in 2014 while she was working on the book. He had worked as a pipe fitter in the mill for 45 years. He was 81 and died of complications from asbestosis, a lung disease resulting from inhaling asbestos particles, as well as lung and esophageal cancer, Arsenault said. She said he inhaled asbestos while working at the mill.

It’s also a book filled with research. Arsenault sifted through many reports and historical archives, which are listed meticulously in the notes section.

PROBING HEALTH RISKS

Possible links between cancer and the Rumford mill has been a topic explored in various media over the years, earning it the nickname “Cancer Valley” among some. Richard Clapp, a Lewiston-born epidemiologist and a former director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry, said the relatively high number of cancer patients from the Rumford-Mexico area being treated in Boston in the 1980s prompted some medical officials to ask him: “What the hell is going on in Rumford?” Clapp, who talked to Arsenault for her book, has looked at studies on cancer rates in the Rumford area and elsewhere, and the relationship to dioxins created in the papermaking process. He said that Rumford-area people were exposed over the years to dioxins – toxic pollutants categorized by some research groups and agencies as “known to cause cancer.”

An image from “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” about life in Mexico and Rumford. Photo by Kerri Arsenault

George O’Keefe, director of economic development for Rumford, said in an email that there have been significant health and safety improvements at the mill since the “Cancer Valley” era of the 1980s, including eliminating the use of elemental chlorine. He also wrote of “the elimination or drastic reduction” in odors and emissions and “decades of investments” made to protect water quality.

“While we understand and respect Kerri’s point of view, in particular given the illness in her family, it is worth remembering that this story is about the town of Rumford’s past and not our present or future,” O’Keefe wrote.

While paper has been made in Rumford since at least 1901, the mill’s current owner, ND Paper, bought the operation in 2018. Brian Boland, the company’s vice president of government affairs and corporate initiatives said the company would not comment on Arsenault’s book or any links between papermaking and cancer. He said the company prides itself on “minimal environmental impact” and using sustainable business practices.

MILL TOWN MYTHS

Mill towns show up in the work of Maine writers fairly often. Monica Wood, another Mexico native, drew critical acclaim for her 2012 memoir “When We Were the Kennedys” about growing up in the early ’60s in a paper mill town. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout, a Maine native with a home in Brunswick, used a fictional Maine mill town called Shirley Falls as the setting for both her 1998 debut, “Amy and Isabelle,” and her 2013 novel “The Burgess Boys.” Portland author Richard Russo used his own mill-town upbringing, in Gloversville, New York, as the basis for many of his novels. Gloversville, as the name implies, was a center of glove and leather manufacturing, a process that has its own associated pollutants and health risks. His 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Empire Falls” was set in a fictional Maine textile and paper mill town.

Arsenault had grown up hearing talk about how the odor from the paper mill “smelled like money” because it provided good-paying jobs to people with a high school education or less. The idea that working in industries with health or environmental risks is worth the economic payoff is one that Arsenault considered carefully while writing the book.

“There’s a romantic version of what mill towns are, that people made these Faustian bargains to gain a better of standard of living while taking the risks,” said Arsenault, who notes that generations of paper mill workers likely had no idea what the real risks were. “They say the people in those towns made a choice, but did they?”

In a blurb he wrote for Arsenault’s book, Russo said that the book helps illustrate the contrast between “the better, more prosperous American life those industries (like paper manufacturing) offered us before we fell ill, as well as the Devil’s bargain that made all this possible, maybe even inevitable.”

Arsenault’s hope is that the book will help people understand what has gone on at paper mills and other types of textile facilities, and prompt people to ask questions about what goes on in mill towns now. Besides writing about paper mills, she is hoping to make a difference by having her book printed on paper that was bleached without chlorine gas, chlorine dioxide or any other chlorine-based bleaching agent.

“My hope for the book is that it reveals how much we really don’t know,” said Arsenault. “That’s always the first step toward change.”


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