Vaughn C. Hardacker here: On September 10, 2020, Heidi Carter, owner of Bogan Books in Fort Kent, ME, and I did a virtual book launch of my newly released novel, THE EXCHANGE, from her store. After the event, I asked her if she had come across any good books. She immediately recommended MILL TOWN by Kerri Arsenault.
Ms Arsenault grew up in Rumford / Mexico, Maine on the banks of the Androscoggin River (at one time labeled as the most polluted river in the country) in what WCVB’s news series Chronicle called Cancer Valley–this particular episode was considered too controversial and never aired in Maine. The early part of the book deals with the Boise Cascade paper mill in Rumsford and dioxin. Dioxin is a by product of the bleaching process that is used to make our paper white.
Dioxin or polychlorinated dibenzodioxin (PCDD) is the generic term for a group of seventy-five related chemical compounds and is an unintended by-product of the paper-making process. It is classified as a persistent organic pollutant, becauseit is persistent in the environment, they bioaccumulate in the body and in the food chain, and they are toxic. The book, a work of non-fiction reads scarier than something penned by Stephen King. If you are interested in Maine’s environmental issues and the love / hate relationship with paper manufacturing, I highly recommend this book.
Now, what does all this have to do with the title of this blog? In the latter portion of the book, she talks about life in a small town and how the various residents view each other. To illustrate this I will quote from page 254:
“I look over at a group of boys throwing pens at each other. To me, they look like all teenage kids: a little sloppy, misunderstood, too big or too small for their clothes. Pimply and raw. But there’s a code, she’s (Ms Arsenault is writing about a conversation with a friend who is the high school principal) implying in the off-brand sneakers or in the slightly unfresh T-shirts worn on repeat that someone points out. These codes create an imaginary line between who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside track. The more fortunate kids, they glide confidently across the linoleum floor as if the very air around them is oiled.
“People tend to comment on differences (no-name clothes, poverty) rather than sameness (boys, teenagers, all receiving free lunch, all friends), which mirrored something I had been seeing everywhere–in classrooms, boardrooms, living rooms: even though we are generally alike in our desire to be fed, clothed, housed, loved, we zero in on differences–in political parties and at dinner parties–perpetuating a cycle of divisiveness that does nobody any good.” (above italics are my italics, not hers)
When I read this I stopped dead! In two paragraphs Ms Arsenault sees what many people never see. Look at our system of government, education systems, and even our personal lives. What is the current state of governmental grid-lock but our so-called leaders emphasizing each other’s differences. As she so aptly calls: “a cycle of divisiveness that does nobody any good.”
Maybe this portion of MILL TOWN should be required reading for any person running for office at every level of government. I think that this hit home with me because as a teenager and eldest son of an alcoholic my self-esteem had been battered for my entire childhood. I grew up in an atmosphere where my mother sat at the kitchen table, drinking beer, and smoking cigarettes firm in the belief that all of the neighbors (especially those known to abstain from drinking alcohol) were looking down on her. In grammar school this wasn’t a big deal (or so I thought) but when I entered Junior High School where some genius felt it was best if students were aligned according to their ability to learn; we were segregated into six divisions with one being the smart kids and six being those who were destined to work the counter at a fast food restaurant for the rest of their lives. My dysfunctional background led me to believe that everyone in level one was looking down on me, a member of level two. As time went along I would be socialized to only associate with members one level above and one below mine, all others would be excluded. People have a tendency to congregate along social lines whether that be based on a financial basis or, as in the case of Caribou Junior High School, intellectual level. Coming from this type of background I have worked my entire life to overcome my tendency to make judgemental decisions when I first meet someone. I key in on our differences. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m only seventy-three, I still have time.
The next time that you watch the television news look for those people who key in on differences, not common areas. Where would we be if those geniuses (and I use that word facetiously) would stop the ridiculous bickering because the other party presents something beneficial to all. Our congressional people are possibly the worst example of this. When the Affordable Care Act was passed the Speaker of the House was criticized for signing it before she had read it. Her comment: “We had to pass the bill to know what is in it.” That baffled me . . . what if hidden in that bill was a clause declaring war on Canada? Recently, that same person criticized the opposition party for passing a budget before she had time to read it. . . This form of hypocrisy is seen every day from our political leaders. In my last post I dealt with the role of Universities in the Nazi suppression of all writing not in line with their beliefs. How should we classify a university who refuses to allow a speaker with political views they don’t agree with to speak? Or a professor who encourages (orders?) his or her students to protest against an ideal or belief contrary to theirs? (I won’t even discuss the guy who told his students that if he learned that they voted a certain way he’d give them an ‘F’.) How many of these become infiltrated by people with an agenda and become violent.
I have always believed that you cannot legislate social change, it can only be true change if it occurs through unbiased education and our young people are taught to respect the beliefs and ideas of others and at least be intelligent enough to think about the similarities between theirs and ours.
WOW!! Enlightenment has burned away the scales from mine eyes. Vaughn, that is the most powerful post I have yet read. And there have been some terrific ones this year. There are always those who recommend an end to our division by saying look for common ground, we are more alike than we think, but we tend to dismiss such recommendations as naive. You put it into stark relief. Stop looking for the way we differ. Thank you for the quote. Thank you for this post.
Well done, Vaughn. We are the sum of our common ground. Differences add spice, but shouldn’t be divisive. Sorry I missed you at Bogan Books. That’s my local indie bookstore and a great place to visit.
Thank you. I hope to be doing more with Heidi, she’s a terrific woman.
Love this post, Vaughn. So much to think about. I am only 71, so yes, there is still time. Thank you for suggesting the book. I look forward to reading it.
The book definitely hit home with me. She goes into quite a bit of detail about Nestle (Poland Springs Water) and its plan to bottle water from Rumford’s aquifer. After reading this I have sworn to never again buy Poland Springs (which isn’t even an American company, let alone a Maine one).
Hey, Vaughn. I agree that it’s important to look for our similarities, and we probably have more than most of us are aware of. I’m not sure I agree with you that we can’t legislate social change. Where would black students be without Brown v Bd. of Education? (And I’m not arguing here that our educational system is perfect by any means. I’m a retired elementary school principal, high school teacher, and former school board member and know from first hand experience it isn’t.) Where would our students (and adults) with disabilities be without legislation mandating we meet their individual needs. Or what about the safety net of Social Security? Those are all examples of things I believe made the world a better safer place for many people. I don’t believe they would’ve happened without legislation. Not a perfect system by any means. But if you see something that is wrong, that hurts others, I believe you need to try to make a change. One of those ways is through legislation. And by the way, when did “compromise” become such a bad word. Loved your thought-provoking post.
I believe that passing a law doesn’t change people’s attitudes. It may force them to modify their behavior. Maybe there will be a day when we all become intelligent enough to want to change our attitude. Yes, you can force someone to obey a law, but that doesn’t make them like or agree with it. To your point I agree that it’s a shame that we have to pass laws to correct obvious wrongs . . . true change doesn’t happen based upon an outside force. For instance, data and science have told us that smoking is harmful to us and those around us, still we don’t quit until we want to. That’s kind of what I was alluding to. Remember prohibition? That didn’t work at all.
Thank you for your comment and I hope someday mankind will be intelligent and compassionate enough to change with out legislation to force it.
In recent months, thanks to the insanity in the world, I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to look behind the immediate surface impressions of people I encounter. It’s not where I’d like, but it’s better than it was. Self awareness isn’t for those with thin skin, but the results are worth it. I’ve also spent time reflecting on how I viewed some of the kids I went to school with 50-60 years ago. Wish I had a time machine so I could go back and rectify some really judgmental behavior.
I’m with you all the way. When I was young I didn’t understand what people meant when they said, “I wish I could go back to my youth and know what I know now.” Boy do I ever understand now. I sometimes think God builds us backwards. When we’re young we’ve got lots of energy, but use it either foolishly or for the wrong purpose. Now that we are the old folks we see the harm we did albeit unintentionally. Wouldn’t it be great if we knew then what we know now?