One of the lesser-discussed political consequences of the past four years has been the blunt-force battering and shattering of environmental regulations. The current administration has taken every opportunity to undermine the clean-air, clean-water, wilderness-preserving policies that have guided — and divided — American life since the early 1970s.
Not that environmental regulations have given Americans a pristine, worry-free existence. As Kerri Arsenault discovered during the making of her trenchant and aching new book, the science and practice of pollution control has been fraught with indecision, ineffectiveness, indifference and often overwhelming corporate influence.
Arsenault’s “Mill Town” takes readers to an interior region of Maine, the kind of place that most people don’t think about when they imagine the coastal wonders of the so-called “Vacationland.” She grew up there, in the town of Mexico, a descendant of Acadian immigrants, whose historical reception sounds all too familiar in the annals of American xenophobia.
The fates of Arsenault’s family members and everyone else around have long been tied to the paper mill that has churned along the Androscoggin River in neighboring Rumford. Her father worked there for 45 years as a pipe-fitter. He died a few years ago of multiple afflictions, most of them caused, Arsenault wants to prove, by his exposure to the toxic ingredients and effluents of the papermaking industry.
But as someone who’d managed to find a life beyond her hometown, she was viewed warily as an outsider when she returned with questions about the dark, cancerous cloud the paper mill cast over the place.
Arsenault’s book shares a spirit with the writings of Terry Tempest Williams, whose most recent essay collection, “Erosion,” explored questions about whom we serve and how we “survive our grief in the midst of so many losses in the living world.” But I also couldn’t help thinking of Williams’ powerful early memoir, “Refuge” (1991), which, like “Mill Town,” invites us not to separate the personal — the death of family members — from the environmental (in Williams’ case, the cancer legacy of nuclear bomb testing in the American West as well as the flooding of a beloved bird sanctuary).
Arsenault is understandably outraged by glad-handing politicians who don’t care about poverty or childhood hunger and by the cycles of assault on her hometown — not just pollution, but opioids, crime and economic decay — that turn it into a “cathedral of trauma.” Her discussion of the routine presence of dioxin in consumer products made from bleached paper — coffee filters, diapers, tampons — is chilling.
Her story loses some of its urgency in the late going as she encounters people from her past and as her document trail proves frustratingly inconclusive. Yet, 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, a writer in Kansas City, spent most of his boyhood in southern Maine.
Mill Town: Reckoning With What Remains
By: Kerri Arsenault.
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, 368 pages, $27.99.