Please welcome our special guest, Maine crime writer Brenda Buchanan.
Mill Town Tales
In 1971, when I was old enough to start noticing things beyond my own nose, a writer named Doris Kirkpatrick wrote a history of my hometown. Published by the local historical society, The City and the River was 453 pages of text, photographs and illustrations about Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the mill town 40 miles northwest of Boston where I’d spent my entire young life.
Until Kirkpatrick’s book provided me the context, I had little sense of the go-go Fitchburg where paper, shoes, guns, textiles, saws and motorcycles once had been manufactured and shipped the world over. The ‘burg I knew was scuffed around the edges, infamous for the sulphurous stench of its paper mills and its multi-hued river. Though it had been on the decline for decades, the town still was peopled by first- and second-generation immigrants who held out hope it would regain its status as a hub of commerce and industry. The stories and photos in The City and the River gave me perspective on them, and on the institutions that had been endowed by the families that built Fitchburg’s once-robust economy.
The hospital where I was born—set high on a hill where we kids were free to ski and toboggan during the winter despite the danger posed by cars whizzing by on the busy street below—was named after the Burbank family, which had established Fitchburg’s first paper mill.
The athletic field where I watched home football games was built by the Crockers, who merged their fledgling company with Burbank Paper in the 1820s and built a ten-mill complex that was at one time the largest paper mill in the United States.
The Wallace Library—which had a separate children’s wing starting in 1899—was a gift to the town from another prominent family engaged in the manufacture of paper. At age four I became the proud owner of a youth library card and spent countless afternoons in that building’s warm, bookish embrace.
When the philanthropic families that had bestowed Fitchburg with its hospital, playing fields and library sold their mills to giant corporations, the same ugly spiral that occurred in Maine’s mill towns happened in mine. Work was shifted to states with lower labor costs. Hours were cut back. The new owners demanded contracts be restructured. Unions went on strike. Mills downsized, then closed.
My parents didn’t work in the mills, but as the owners of a small service business they had plenty of customers who did. In the summer of 1972 my father was busy installing and maintaining oil burners, but a prolonged paper mill strike forced him to parse through his invoices at the end of the month. He sorted them into two piles—people whose income likely wasn’t affected too much by the strike and those who were walking a picket line. Ignorant of the etiquette required in such a circumstance, I asked why we were holding some bills back. “You don’t send a customer a bill you know they can’t pay,” my dad said. “Those bills can keep until the strike is over.”
My father’s words illuminated one of the central truths I learned growing up in a mill town on the downswing—we were all in it together. Kind of like a marriage: for better or worse, in good times and in bad.
Other Maine writers who grew up in mill towns have described this same feeling with powerful eloquence. Monica Wood’s memoir When We Were The Kennedys captures the tight-knit world of Mexico, Maine and the common sense compassion provided by her neighbors in times of terrible loss. Richard Russo’s protagonist Miles Roby toils under Mrs. Whiting’s weakening thumb in Empire Falls, paying the price for real and imagined sins of others in the past-its-prime town of the same name.
I moved away from my hometown long ago, but on some level you never really leave the place that hatched you. My books are set in Riverside, Maine, a faded textile mill town west of Portland on the banks of the imaginary Cascabago River. It’s best described as an amalgamation of a number of Maine towns—Biddeford, Lewiston, Westbrook, Skowhegan, Bucksport, Old Town and Millinocket, with a little Fitchburg thrown in for good measure.
My mythical Riverside hit bottom many years ago, but in the past decade it has begun to fight its way back. By the summer of 2014 a young developer announces plans to renovate the long-shuttered Saccarappa Textile Mill into condos, artist studios and an all-local brew pub designed to pull the hipsters west from Portland.
Portland Daily Chronicle reporter Joe Gale is touring the defunct Saccarappa when a long-dead body is discovered bricked behind a wall, putting the mill renovation on hold and a cold case investigation into high gear. Fueled on caffeine to stay ahead of the Tweeters and Facebookers who are a modern reporter’s competition, Joe works the story hard, ignoring signals that someone is tracking his every move. When his prime source vanishes, Joe fears his tenacity has provoked another murder, this time to conceal four decades of deceit.
Quick Pivot will be released April 27—two months from today(!)—by Carina Press, a digital first publisher. I hope readers of this blog who are fans of mill towns, newspapers and traditional mysteries will look for it wherever e-books are sold, and will come see me when I visit your local library this coming spring and summer so we can continue the conversation.
Brenda Buchanan is a former newspaper reporter with a deep reverence for small town journalism. Her Joe Gale Mystery Series features an old-school reporter with modern media savvy who covers the Maine crime beat. Brenda worked as a reporter trainee at the Boston Globe while an undergraduate at Northeastern University. She was a reporter and columnist at the York County Coast Star in Kennebunk before attending law school at the University of Maine. Now a Portland lawyer with a daily writing habit, Brenda lives with her spouse in Westbrook.
Brenda can be found on the web at www.brendabuchananwrites.com, on Facebook and on Twitter at @buchananbrenda.