Our Riverine DNA

2,613 total words    

10 minutes of reading

A review of Kerri Arsenault, Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020).

The morning I sat down to write this review my phone rang. An old friend was on the other end. “They found a malignant-appearing mass in my colonoscopy yesterday,” she told me. “It’s ten centimeters. I need some information.”

She knew that my mother had died two years ago from colon cancer. She knew I’d been living with chronic illness myself for more than two decades. She wanted to know where I went for my alternative therapies, how to find the best surgeon, who to call. I gave her a list, names, recommendations, tried to send strength through the phone.

“I drink this Chinese herbal tea every morning,” she said. “What if that gave me cancer?”

“You are a human being living in twenty-first century America,” I said. “I just finished this amazing book last night, about dioxin and paper manufacturing and cancer. There’s so much poison in the world now, we’re all eating dioxin every day. You can’t say conclusively anymore where your level of exposure came from. It’s in all of us now.”

It was cold comfort to offer, but it also felt like the most important thing I could give her. It was an understanding that Kerri Arsenault’s book, Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, gave me. The reasons we fall ill, lose work, get left behind as communities and people and families, are so much bigger than we know, so much more complex and entangled. While that’s terrifying, it also means that we’re not completely alone but rather in this together, and in that knowledge lies a huge amount of power. Arsenault asks us to recognize and access this power in the kindest, most forthcoming, self-aware, and subtle call to action I have read in a long time.

Mill Town traces the history of Arsenault’s family legacy in the small Maine town of Mexico, a mill town on the Androscoggin River, up the coast from the tourist meccas of “America’s Vacationland.” Arsenault does a very complex and nuanced thing for an American writer these days. She braids together stories of class, work, and migration for small town Acadian Catholics into a layered story of place, choice, and capitalist control that spans decades and yet feels as intimate as your own blood, your own DNA.

Arsenault’s family survived the forced removal of Acadians from northern lands and drifted down into Maine to work in logging camps and eventually paper mills, once Maine’s largest form of industry. Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all called mill work their own. The family and the town radiated working class pride in jobs done well and the paper provided for National Geographic magazines—the glossy images of Planet Earth and its creatures showcased on paper they alone were able to produce, turning the fierce forests of Northern Maine, dense and full of moose, into stories consumed by the rest of the world. But Arsenault’s own life went a different way.

Her parents made sacrifices of income and mobility to do what Americans are told we must, provide a better life for our children. Arsenault went west to college, married a boy from “away” (in this case, near neighbor Massachusetts), and built a life apart from her home state, rendering her an outsider in a community that had four generations of family buried in its ground.

From that perspective, Arsenault writes about class, work, and what it means to leave, recognizing the stubborn, self-defeating behavior of her people as they reject her perspective because she’s left. Speaking early in the book of an outside organization trying to help the paper mill untangle the mess of its pollution and aftermath, Arsenault writes, “Maybe [people from that organization] held themselves above and apart from those they claimed to help, and in doing so, weren’t able to see residents eye to eye. And this imbalance bred a defensiveness that lodged in our town gestalt.” (41).

Over the course of the narrative, Arsenault tries to fight alongside her former neighbors against both the dioxin pollution that has formed the paper mill towns along the Androscoggin into “Cancer Valley” and the efforts of Nestle to claim the town water for a new bottling plant. Her efforts are requested but rejected: she’s too close, she’s too far away. But to me, her perspective on this story is at exactly the right distance. Like the best Richard Russo novel, she unpacks layer upon layer of histories of the bodies and psyches of her former neighbors—her parents’ neighbors—to reveal character, choices, and traps. You know those people, why they stay when she leaves. You follow them to funerals for deaths from colon cancer, lung disease, chemical burns from bleach rooms and paper processing. You stand at the Union memorial to industrial accidents.

As you do, Arsenault refuses to pull any punches, or to turn her observing eye from her neighbors or herself. “’I went to a funeral today,”  an old friend says to her. “And ninety percent of the people there, I love. I stay because of love.” (270)

“Where do you live now?” asks another friend, seeing Arsenault back home at the grocery store. “In Connecticut,” she says, “in a farmhouse.” “Martha Stewart lives in a farmhouse in Connecticut,” her friend responds (177).

The complexities of who gets to tell these stories, who gets to have a voice, lace through Arsenault’s book, layering the personal alongside the very real political and economic pressures that silence people. Both the selectmen and Department of Environmental Protection bow to company pressures, afraid of the economic costs of saying no to jobs that come with dioxin poisoning and the resultant cancer in their own bodies or aplastic anemia in the bodies of their children. Who better to tell the story than the people themselves? But Arsenault continually makes sure that the reader understands that community reluctance to speak up for its own needs comes as much from pride as coercion. They want to be seen as they are, not characters in some story they don’t control. In one memorable passage, she quotes a worker at a town meeting discussing pollution:

Mercury. And that’s all in the ground down there. They don’t tell nobody nothin’. They buried it down there. You know what? The cancer rate in that mill is un-be-live-a-ble! Can you imagine how much mercury is in the water down there? It’s there for-evah. I don’t care how high in the spring the rivah is. That don’t wash away. Mercury’s too heavy. That’s in the watah. Do I know anyone else who wuhked in chemical unloading? Ha ha ha. They’re all dead. Please don’t put my name on this. When you live in this town its amazin’. See, I get my pension through the mill (242).

At the opening, Mill Town reads as if it will find a smoking gun, a big reveal of buried data, a company or government cover-up that, once identified, will break the story open and change things for good. We’re used to books like that. My own mother, a Department of Environmental Protection hydrogeologist for the state of Massachusetts, told me with pride as she was dying of colon cancer that she’d worked alongside the scientist who’d uncovered the story that turned into A Civil Action. But there is no smoking fun or single villain in Arsenault’s book. It offers a better, truer picture of the ways in which infrastructural classism, racism, and neglect happen all the time, in towns all over this country, as they are turned into sacrifice zones that the rich exploit as they’ve exploited powerless people since this country began. The big reveal is that this is the most normal thing our country does. But the horror, and the spotlight, are still very much needed, and Arsenault doesn’t let herself or us get away with anything: 

Those who can’t move become receptacles for our trash. We have always remanded garbage to the margins, to silent locations of despair, or tossed it into streams and watched it float away like a toy boat we can’t trace. Out of sight, out of mind allows us to rest easier because we want to believe that there is no lead in our tap water, no dioxin in our kids’ blood, no legal, well-designed, well-operated, and well-maintained combustion device throwing shit up into our backyards. After all, there is always someone else carrying the burden for us. It’s an illusion, this “poison-redistribution,” because what we expel from our backyards eventually returns—but in more diabolical forms. Mass cannot be destroyed, only rearranged (321).

She makes sure to remind us that the system is designed to encourage narratives of the big reveal—the person who discovers the problem and makes it right. She never names them, but folk heroes like Erin Brockovich and Robert Bilott of the 2019 film Dark Waters loom over the book, and each time a new character who knew what was going on but was silenced was introduced, I found myself—even though I know better—trying to follow them as a new narrative hero. But the people and the silences in the book are too numerous for that.

The barriers to Arsenault’s research were numerous, too. Institutional lockouts piled up alongside the litany of cancers in her family, the deaths of her high school friends and their millworker parents, the drop in property values, and the neglect of hungry children and Union workers. The connections Arsenault reveals are multiple and winding, “Yet because you can’t draw a straight line doesn’t mean there’s no line,” she writes (281). Her point is that we’re all in it together, and that if we want it fixed, all of us will have to fix it for ourselves.

My mother went back to college when I was ten, studying geology, then geophysics, and finally landing a job with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection when I was in high school. She did it because my dad was sick, and someone had to pay the bills. She did it because her mother was a scientist. She did it because she’d been told her whole life that she was merely pretty and wanted, at last, to prove everyone wrong. She did it so we could stay in rural New England, in the mill towns my father adored, where he made furniture next to rivers as polluted as the Androscoggin. But we were outsiders to the things Arsenault’s family endured for decades and decades.

My parents were bohemians, and I like to tell people that I’m a fourth-generation socialist. Though there is definitely working class history in my family tree—Irish immigrants, my father’s night school finished while he supported his impoverished widowed mother, my grandmother fainting during the depression while she waited on line for a job at a bread factory with thousands of others—our roots are not roots so much as vines, allowing education, mobility. We get to choose where we live. Most human beings don’t.

Part of my family lived in Maine, and the whole clan would gather every seven years or so for reunions on the coast. On Southport Island, off Boothbay Harbor, we would have clam bakes and go sailing and pretend that the life our one relative built into generations of lobstering and the tourist industry really connected with ours. But I always knew we were tourists everywhere we went. Yankees, even the less fierce Massachusetts variety, never let you forget you are from somewhere else.

My mother’s career was like that, too. She worked for one miserable year on what she would have described as the wrong side of the fight against environmental pollution, with a consulting firm that helped companies with remediation after they were shown to have destroyed an ecosystem or a town’s health. She didn’t last in that job; it made her ethical compass spin too fast. She moved to the DEP. But the fights she had even there were constant and draining, leaving her distant, alcoholic, and exhausted for a long time. Her conscience wanted to protect the people in her care, but government or industry was constantly pushing back—she was in the middle. Wins like the one in A Civil Action were rare and short-lived.

She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia first, something I never thought to connect to the years when we lived in mill towns and drank water polluted before the Clean Air and Water Act was passed. My father built furniture in a space he rented in an old mill. I walked past the Housatonic River every day of my childhood in one town or another, just downstream from a half dozen paper and leather factories. When my mother would come home, she’d tell me about paper dye releases from factories that turned the river technicolor rainbows. How did I never notice that she got sicker the closer she came to all of that in her job? Arsenault says the mill workers have been poisoned by their profession, and maybe my mother was poisoned by trying to protect them. By the time she was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2017, I was so focused on keeping her alive that it never occurred to me to connect the dots. That’s how it goes. She had to have that job to keep us alive, to allow me to get out, go to college, to write. The job may have killed her. How can I say now that it didn’t?

Arsenault unpacks questions like these in Mill Town, a long riverine story of dots connecting, never in a straight line, but always in a complex pattern. Dioxin is killing her town, but no one will admit it. Doctors who flag results are run out of Maine. She has to work summers feeding lobsters to tourists to afford college. Lobster flesh is uniquely able to retain dioxin. And so it goes.

How can anyone step out of the cycle? How can anyone fight back against place, loyalty, family, to flag for anyone outside the dangers of simply trying to have a life in a place deemed fodder for a capitalist machine that requires bodies for its function?

In language both fierce and at times achingly lyrical, Arsenault asks these questions, allowing us to see her struggle with the complexity of the answers—her own feelings of inadequacy to the task of shaping the narrative treatment of these lives, of this story. At once her text is revelatory and respectful, reluctant and exultant, like the people of Maine, opinionated, direct, and suspicious, tender, prideful, and honorable. 

When something like the big reveal comes, as it does in the final chapter, the reader is rewarded with a story that reaches past locality and the bodies that have moved away from it, into the lives our lives touch every day, into what we eat, and drink, and breathe. It left me breathless and sad, heavy with information, but also with something more: a connection born of truth-telling—the open, honest expression of reality in a community that is so much larger than tiny Mexico, Maine. And I know that’s what Arsenault wanted, for me, for us: to see that this belongs to all of us now. “As the Androscoggin gains speed and intent, twining through everything like strands of DNA, it gathers everything we fed to its belly in grotesque detail—dioxin, sawdust, mercury, our broken cars and lives. . . . Paths with tidy resolutions never really occur.” (313).

Instead we follow the river with Arsenault, from the bodies of the Maine paper mill town, to the body of my friend over in Humboldt Park, Chicago. From her cancer, to my mother’s, to Arsenault’s father, the poisoned water connects us all, and we cannot afford to look away.

  • Eiren Caffall

    Eiren Caffall is a writer and musician based in Chicago. Her work on loss and nature, oceans and extinction has appeared in The Rumpus, Entropy Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Punk Planet, the short film Becoming Ocean, and three record albums.

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