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Mill Town

Reckoning with What Remains

Kerri Arsenault

St. Martin's Griffin

Mill Town Download image

ISBN10: 1250799686
ISBN13: 9781250799685

Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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Winner of the Rachel Carson Environmental Book Award
Winner of the Maine Literary Award for Nonfiction
Finalist for the National Book Critics John Leonard Prize for Best First Book
Finalist for the New England Society Book Award

Finalist for the New England Independent Booksellers Association Award

Kerri Arsenault grew up in the small, rural town of Mexico, Maine, where for over 100 years the community orbited around a paper mill that provided jobs for nearly everyone in town, including three generations of her family. Kerri had a happy childhood, but years after she moved away, she realized the price she paid for that childhood. The price everyone paid. The mill, while providing the social and economic cohesion for the community, also contributed to its demise.

Mill Town is a book of narrative nonfiction, investigative memoir, and cultural criticism that illuminates the rise and collapse of the working-class, the hazards of loving and leaving home, and the ambiguous nature of toxics and disease with the central question; Who or what are we willing to sacrifice for our own survival?


Praise for Mill Town

“Combining personal history with investigative reporting, Arsenault pays loving homage to her family’s tight-knit Maine town even as she examines the cancers that have stricken so many residents.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

Mill Town is preoccupied with a poisonous irony: Rumford’s citizens live and work in a place that makes them unwell . . . The scale of the problem and of the potential malfeasance could not be grander or more terrifying.”—Emily Cooke, The New York Times Book Review

“With affection and concern, Mill Town recounts ‘Maine’s constant conundrum, an American story, a human predicament.' In rural, working-class towns, the presence of industry amounts to pollution, but its absence gives way to poverty. Within fence-line communities like Arsenault’s Mexico, prosperity and affliction are wholly intertwined.”—Andru Okun, The Boston Globe

“Though you assume another hand-wringing over environmental deregulation, what unspools is much richer and more affecting. Using her father’s death as catalyst, [Arsenault] digs into state history, the town’s decline and the mill’s legacy. She brings the outrage of a furious native, tearing down years of 'Vacationland' tourism, yet deeply homesick for the place she once knew. What gave her hometown its meaning once—industry, deregulation, community—is precisely what devoured it.”—Christopher Borrelli, The Chicago Tribune

Mill Town poses hard questions that challenge the tacit acceptance of ecological destruction as the price of economic health.”—Los Angeles Times

“Trenchant and aching . . . What Arsenault has provided is a model of persistence, thoughtful reflection and vividly human personal narrative in uncovering a heartbreaking story that could be told in countless American towns, along countless American rivers.”—Steve Paul, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A valuable addition to the literature of New England’s industrial legacy, something many residents have either forgotten or choose to ignore, to the region’s detriment.”—Alex Hanson, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Part beautiful memoir and regional history, part investigative journalism, part environmental diatribe countered by a poetic ode to place. In short, it’s a fraught love letter to that fragile American entity, the small, rural, working-class town… . . . Arsenault’s prose shines . . . She has done immense and important research and delivered an engaging tale that deserves a close read.”—Stephanie Hunt, The Post and Courier (Charleston)

“Clear-eyed and self-deprecating, Arsenault is a welcome guide through the history of Mexico and Rumford, capturing the voices of their inhabitants, the stories they tell and the confidences they keep. She is tenacious in her search for answers, tender in her interactions with her mother and their neighbors. A riveting blend of reportage and memoir reveals the secrets of a paper mill town.”—Michael Berry, Maine Sunday Telegram

“For stretches, it is pure memoir—and first-rate memoir at that . . . In other places, the book is a compelling and taut work of industrial investigation [and] Arsenault is meticulous in her research. Mill Town is haunting and heartbreaking, charming and funny . . . and utterly exceptional.”—Alan Adams, The Maine Edge

“Lyrical and compelling prose . . . What Arsenault presents, with mesmerizing lyricism and endearing honesty, is the story of a dying town wedded to a paper mill that once anchored the local economy while also bringing pollution and cancer. Mill Town puts forth larger questions of the human relationship to the environment; of the violence done to the land that eventually translates into the devastation of the people that live on it. Arsenault’s loyalty is not simply to a limited idea of health that would be typified by paying the ailing damages but on the injustice done to the land on a larger scale.”—Rafia Zakaria, The Baffler

Mill Town is a rich, rewarding read that defies easy categorization. Despite the gravity of its subject, Mill Town is, at its heart, a love letter to the people and places of Arsenault’s childhood and a plea for a cleaner, brighter future.”—Jessica Lahey, Air Mail

“Arsenault combines memoir with investigative journalism in this tale of the toxic paper mill at the center of her Maine hometown, an area now nicknamed Cancer Valley.”—People

“An imposing work of narrative nonfiction . . . Arsenault's account is enlivened by vivid prose, often coolly analytical and yet deeply lyrical. Mexico's melancholy story—one that's mirrored today in thousands of struggling small towns across the U.S.—comes to life in Arsenault's sympathetic, but unfailingly clear-eyed, telling.”—Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf Awareness

“Reportage, memoir, and the refusal to seek easy answers clasp hands to bring us a searing, compassionate story of people rooted in and committed to a place that keeps breaking their bodies and hearts . . . With love and sorrow, wed by eloquent prose that moves with keen pacing, Arsenault traces the story of her family and the many families who have been battered along with their despoiled environment. This book is an essential answer to the urgent question: 'At what cost comes progress?'—Garnette Cadogan, LitHub

“In this masterful debut, the author creates a crisp, eloquent hybrid of atmospheric memoir and searing exposé . . . Bittersweet memories and a long-buried atrocity combine for a heartfelt, unflinching, striking narrative combination.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Arsenault's compelling debut asks readers to consider how relationships between humans and nature impact our bodies and environment . . . [A] powerful memoir.”—Library Journal

“[A] powerful, investigative memoir . . . Arsenault paints a soul-crushing portrait of a place that’s suffered 'the smell of death and suffering' almost since its creation. This moving and insightful memoir reminds readers that returning home—'the heart of human identity'—is capable of causing great joy and profound disappointment.”—Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Kerri Arsenault

KERRI ARSENAULT is the Book Review Editor at Orion magazine, and Contributing Editor at Lithub. Arsenault received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and studied in Malmö University’s Communication for Development master’s programme. Her writing has appeared in Freeman’s, Lithub,, and The Minneapolis Star Tribune, among other publications. She lives in New England. Mill Town is her first book.

Erik Madigan Heck

Kerri Arsenault

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