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The Last Town on Earthby Thomas Mullen
Synopses & Reviews
Set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that America ever experienced — the 1918 flu epidemic — Thomas Mullen's powerful, sweeping first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval.
Deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the Pacific Northwest is a small mill town called Commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. For Philip Worthy, the adopted son of the town's founder, it is a haven in another sense — as the first place in his life he's had a loving family to call his own.
And yet, the ideals that define this outpost are being threatened from all sides. A world war is raging, and with the fear of spies rampant, the loyalty of all Americans is coming under scrutiny. Meanwhile, another shadow has fallen across the region in the form of a deadly illness striking down vast swaths of surrounding communities.
When Commonwealth votes to quarantine itself against contagion, guards are posted at the single road leading in and out of town, and Philip Worthy is among them. He will be unlucky enough to be on duty when a cold, hungry, tired — and apparently ill — soldier presents himself at the town's doorstep begging for sanctuary. The encounter that ensues, and the shots that are fired, will have deafening reverberations throughout Commonwealth, escalating until every human value — love, patriotism, community, family, friendship — not to mention the town's very survival, is imperiled.
Inspired by a little-known historical footnote regarding towns that quarantined themselves during the 1918 epidemic, The Last Town on Earth is a remarkably moving and accomplished debut.
"It is the autumn of 1918 and a world war and an influenza epidemic rage outside the isolated utopian logging community of Commonwealth, Wash. In an eerily familiar climate of fear, rumor and patriotic hysteria, the town enacts a strict quarantine, posting guards at the only road into town. A weary soldier approaches the gate on foot and refuses to stop. Shots ring out, setting into motion a sequence of events that will bring the town face-to-face with some of the 20th-century's worst horrors. Mullen's ambitious debut is set against a plausibly sketched background, including events such the Everett Massacre (between vigilantes and the IWW), the political repression that accompanied the U.S. entry into WWI and the rise of the Wobblies. But what Mullen supplies in terms of historical context, he lacks in storytelling; though the novel is set in 1918, it was written in a post 9/11 world where fear of bird flu regularly makes headlines, and the allegory is heavy-handed (the protagonist townie, after all, is named Philip Worthy). The grim fascination of the narrative, however, will keep readers turning the pages. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"No man is an island, John Donne wrote, and if you dare try to be one, the world will come ram down your door and give you what for. Well, Donne didn't write that second part, but it's a truth pretty universally acknowledged, if you'll pardon the literary allusion-mixing. And it's never truer than in bad times. The harder you try to hide, the more brutally you'll be yanked back into the fray. ... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) That's the grim message of 'The Last Town on Earth,' Thomas Mullen's page-turner of a debut historical novel, set in the deep woods of Washington state in 1918. Part morality tale, part coming-of-age yarn, this is the story of an isolated logging town that tries to close itself off from the influenza epidemic that raged around the globe that year, mowing down millions in their prime. A novel about the Spanish flu would be hard put to avoid grimness, of course, what with all the dying that will have to go on if it's going to be true to the historical event. But grim can be gripping. As does nearly every would-be serious novel hoping for a breakthrough these days, Mullen's book has most of the requisite elements: psychological suspense, villains, victims, a conflicted hero or two, secrets and a mystery. In short, it's a grabber. And right off the mark. As the novel opens, 16-year-old Philip Worthy and his millworker friend Graham Stone are guarding the entrance to the town of Commonwealth when a man approaches up the access road through the woods. He's a soldier — lost, cold and hungry, begging for food and shelter. He ignores warnings to turn around and go away. He pleads and keeps coming. And then he coughs, 'loudly, thickly.' And the next minute he's dead, shot by Graham in what the millworker tells himself is an act of self-defense. After that death, nothing in Commonwealth will ever be the same. One of those newfangled 'socialist' towns, Commonwealth provides its workers with homes — in houses all exactly alike so that nobody's able to put himself above anybody else — and decent working conditions and higher wages than millworkers get in nearby towns. It's just such a righteous place, such a worthy place (is it only coincidence that its founder's name is Charles Worthy?) that it's bound to get its comeuppance. And get it, it does. After the shooting, young Philip can't reconcile himself to the idea that a man had to die so that he and his family and all the other Commonwealthers could be safe. He's tortured with what-ifs: What if the soldier didn't have the flu? What if he, Philip, had tried to do something to prevent the killing? Maybe he could have: ' ... he could have volunteered to fetch some food from town and thrown it down the hill for the soldier. Surely there could have been some way to help the man without letting him come any closer.' The town's course is set. After all, it's the selfish flipside of the medieval English village that sacrificed itself to keep the flu from spreading, as chronicled in Geraldine Brooks' historical novel 'Year of Wonders.' Commonwealth's 'reverse' quarantine — something a few towns in the American West actually attempted in 1918 — has nothing much of nobility in it, except for Charles Worthy's wish to insulate his dream of equality and protect the people he feels responsible for. Soon there's another desperate would-be visitor to Commonwealth, and this time, as luck would have it, Philip is alone on the watch. He isn't about to kill a man, and he isn't about to send him off to freeze and die in the woods, but his choice of actions sets off a chain of events with murderous consequences, as neighbors come to doubt one another and angry lawmen from a nearby town cast a suspicious eye Commonwealth's way — not to mention what happens with that killer flu. But who will live and who will die? You might be surprised. ... Mullen, who, as it happens, lives in Washington, D.C., not the West Coast state of his story, wisely gives us an existential ending that's not exactly satisfying but happily avoids the sappy. In fact, apart from the choice of a teenage protagonist, which occasionally gives his book the slight feel of a young adult novel, Mullen's a pretty wise first-time novelist. Consider this reflection from Graham's wife, Amelia, worrying about the effect the initial killing had on her husband: 'And even if so much was stripped away that you no longer recognized yourself, the thing left was the part of you that you never understood, that you always underestimated, that you were always afraid to look at. You were afraid you'd need it one day and it wouldn't be there for you, but in fact was the one thing that couldn't be taken away.' Now that's a killer insight, and the kind of writing that makes 'The Last Town on Earth,' for all its grimness, a worthy place to visit." Reviewed by Zofia Smardz, an assistant editor of The Washington Post's Outlook section, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A brisk pace and good storytelling bring to life a historical period that seems as fraught and fascinating as our own." Seattle Times
"[A] timely and sobering look back at a nation during a deadly war involving a human enemy far away, a disease at home, fear, and political and cultural forces." Library Journal
"Mullen draws effective parallels with our current fear of contagious viruses, obsession with foreign operatives, and repression of political dissent." Booklist
About the Author
Thomas Mullen was born in Rhode Island and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife. He is at work on a new novel.
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