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October 19, 2015 Inside the Notebook

Mill town stories in 'When We Were the Kennedys' are universal

When Maine writer Monica Wood took to the road to promote her book, “When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine,” she discovers some surprising commonalities in talking to readers around the country.

Her tale, set in 1963, the same year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, talks about her dad's sudden death en route to his job at the Oxford Paper Co. in Mexico and across the Androscoggin River in Rumford. She also writes about a former age of prosperity in her town during the manufacturing boom, and the mill town's demise. Oxford Paper underwent a series of acquisitions that shaved it down to a shadow of its former hulking size when Wood was a child.

During the book tour, a process authors call “reading to chairs” because ofttimes few people show up, she was surprised to find how many readers in other areas could relate to her story, even though they hadn't heard of Oxford Paper or even Moxie.

In an October Down East magazine article she writes, “Astonishingly, I find myself reading not to chairs but to readers…who afterward line up to tell me their own stories, relishing their connections, a scene that would repeat itself many times before tour's end.”

She writes of people saying, “We made paper too…We made buttons. We made blankets. We made cars.”

And they made the comments, she writes, remembering their mill and factory towns with awe, humor and gratitude. Her brother stayed in the town to have a family and work in the same mill.

Hers isn't just a tale of nostalgia for a time of youth, when everything seemed better than it is now. Nor is it just a tale of gloom. It is, however, a tale of hope for the towns and their people, who are suffering from job loss, people moving away, depressed economies and other maladies.

In just the past few months, Old Town pulp mill announced it would close by the end of the year, Lincoln Paper and Tissue filed for bankruptcy and Verso said it would lay off 300 workers in Jay by early 2016. The legacy continues, as one can see just driving through East Millinocket, where the Great Northern Paper mill was sold last year at bankruptcy auction, its future, uncertain.

Wood's book and Down East article record a way of life that has since vanished, taking its toll on those who remain.

Wood concludes her Down East story by talking about how all her interactions with readers who have experienced similar changes in their own home towns across America — former bustling mill towns where residents now work different jobs — have given her an even bigger story to bring home with her, one that crosses generations and locales.

She notes that she came home knowing her story knows no tribe or generation. “Come here, find work, have children who do better than you did, have better than you had,” she concludes. “Living that vision was easier once — we made pallets, we made doors, we made light bulbs — but as long as fathers and mothers and sons and daughters endure, so too will that 'particular' story.”

I, too, spent my childhood in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania once brimming with coal miners, including my grandfather, who died of black lung disease before I was born. I remember the hollowing out of areas scarred by the mining process. My most vivid image is standing with a group of neighbors watching a local bank fall slowly into a sink hole left by an abandoned coal mine.

I don't get back too often, but I've noticed new businesses eventually set in, and some of my former neighbors now had children who have remained in the area to work different types of jobs and have families. I found Wood's story relatable, as I suspect many Mainers will as well.

Read more

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