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Mill Town

Reckoning with What Remains

Kerri Arsenault

St. Martin's Press

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ISBN10: 1250155932
ISBN13: 9781250155931


368 Pages



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Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award

Kerri Arsenault grew up in the rural working class town of Mexico, Maine. For over 100 years the community orbited around a paper mill that employs most townspeople, including three generations of Arsenault’s own family. Years after she moved away, Arsenault realized the price she paid for her seemingly secure childhood. The mill, while providing livelihoods for nearly everyone, also contributed to the destruction of the environment and the decline of the town’s economic, physical, and emotional health in a slow-moving catastrophe, earning the area the nickname “Cancer Valley.”

Mill Town is a personal investigation, where Arsenault sifts through historical archives and scientific reports, talks to family and neighbors, and examines her own childhood to illuminate the rise and collapse of the working-class, the hazards of loving and leaving home, and the ambiguous nature of toxins and disease. Mill Town is a moral wake-up call that asks, Whose lives are we willing to sacrifice for our own survival?


Praise for Mill Town

“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

"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

"In Mill Town, Kerri Arsenault has managed a literary hat trick, combining humanity, science, and capitalism, and the price paid not only by her own family in a single state, but across generations, industries, and geographies. She has laid out, in elegant prose and harrowing reportage, the price we may all pay, and in this, she has managed to create at once both a cautionary tale and a literary treasure."—Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us

“[Mill Town] is about the better, more prosperous American life those industries afforded us before we fell ill, as well as the Devil’s bargain that made all this possible, maybe even inevitable. Mill Town is for anyone who’s ever wondered about the Calvinistic calculus whereby the elect become truly wealthy while the damned (read: poor, dark-skinned, newly arrived) find early graves.”—Richard Russo, author of Chances Are . . . and Empire Falls

Mill Town is a powerful, blistering, devastating book. Kerri Arsenault is both a graceful writer and a grieving daughter in search of answers and ultimately, justice. In telling the story of the town where generations of her family have lived and died, she raises important and timely questions.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance

“The book of a lifetime; a deep-drilling, quick-moving, heartbreaking story. Scathing and tender, it is written in a clear-running prose that lifts often into poetry, but comes down hard when it must. Through it all runs the river of Mill Town: sluggish, ancient, dangerous, freighted with America's sins. This is a book about residues and legacies; I know that Mill Town will stay with me for years to come.”—Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland

"Arsenault’s pursuit of truth is as compassionate as it is relentless. The result, her book, is tender, enthralling, and, ultimately, devastating."—Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Arrest

"Arsenault's relentless, unsparing exploration goes to the heart of American life, and I can think of no book that's more relevant to this moment in time than Mill Town."—Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

"This fierce and impeccably researched work really got my blood boiling about the plunder mechanism of capitalism and its blow against life."—Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion

"A vivid insight to the unbuilding of an American dream, this will be one of the major nonfiction books of a year in which the debate over what America is will rage."—John Freeman, author of Dictionary of the Undoing and editor of Freeman’s

"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)

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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