For many of us, the next few weeks will be a flurry of holiday parties, last-minute gift runs, and the chance to see family and friends. In a bid to remember why we go through so much trouble to be with loved ones this time of year, consider picking up the third literary anthology in the Freeman's collection entitled Home (Grove, $16). Thirty-seven writers from around the world focused on the idea of home, each bringing a new perspective and interpretation.
In the narrative nonfiction piece "Vacationland," author Kerri Arsenault returns to her hometown of Mexico, Maine, which sits on the banks of the Androscoggin River. Now a derelict relic of a bygone era, the townspeople's former prosperity came from toiling in the paper mill in nearby Rumford. "That's money coming out of those smokestacks," Arsenault's father used to say, but there was plenty else coming out of those stacks, too--dioxin, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, and other by-products of contemporary mass-produced papermaking, slowly poisoning the surrounding environment and its inhabitants. (Read "At the Crossroads" in On Paper for a look inside the modern commercial papermaking experience.)
By 1970, oxygen levels in the Androscoggin were zero, choking out the fish, while the toxic brew spewed from the plant plastered the riverbanks with rainbow-colored foam. Esophageal cancer, prostate cancer, and leukemia cases skyrocketed in Rumford and Mexico, yet the mill kept churning out the high glossy paper demanded by its customers, ironically like the National Geographic Society. Though a boon for the town's coffers, a century of mismanagement had its price.
As she deals with her father's slow demise from asbestosis of the lungs cultivated from forty-three years of work in the paper mill, Arsenault contemplates the contradictions between how the rest of the country sees Maine--as a pristine wilderness filled with pine trees--and the one she experienced growing up in a town that smelled like eggs and where the tap water made her gag. Indeed, she wonders whether the Maine so beloved by E.B. White and Henry Thoreau has even existed since the Abenaki Native Americans managed the land as their own.
"When we leave home, we leave behind our past and encounter a version of home when we return, built of legends true and false," Arsenault concludes. Perhaps the contradictions ring louder for her than for others, but "Vacationland" is a clear-eyed meditation on what happens when the place you grew up is suddenly unrecognizable. At once unsentimental yet surprisingly nostalgic, "Vacationland" and other stories in Home refuse to be forgotten.