Last Town on Earth (Mullen)

The Last Town on Earth
Thomas Mullen, 2006
Random House
416 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812975925

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Rhode Island, USA
Education—B.A., Oberlin College
Awards—James Fenimore Cooper Prize, Best Historical
Currently—lives in Atlanta, Georgia

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction.

His second novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, will be published in early 2010 by Random House. Since the publication of The Last Town on Earth, he has given lectures/readings to universities and community libraries (some of which have chosen The Last Town on Earth for "One Book/One Community" or "Freshman Reads" projects), literary festivals, and the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Mullen was born and raised in Rhode Island and graduated from Oberlin College. He has lived in Boston; in Chapel Hill, NC; in Washington, DC; and he now makes his home in Atlanta with his wife and son.

When not reading or writing, his greatest interests are music, film, travel, and hiking. The best books he read in 2008 were Lush Life by Richard Price, Citizen Vince by Jess Walter, Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner, and The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. (From the author's website.)

Book Reviews
Quietly, ominously, these details create a larger background we may recognize — a deeply unpopular war, a subservient press, a secretive vigilante-like group called the American Protective League, sponsored by the Department of Justice, which monitors the draft and suppresses dissent. As always, noncombatant politicians wage a comical war against language (substituting, say, "liberty cabbage" for "sauerkraut.").
Max Byrd - New York Time

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.
Zofia Smardz - Washington Post

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.
Publishers Weekly

Set in 1918, with World War I raging in Europe and a deadly flu epidemic spreading to and through America, this is the story of a town that decides to take its fate into its own hands. The committee members of the Washington town of Commonwealth decide to set up an armed outpost to prevent those infected with influenza from getting in. Young guards Graham, a mill worker, and Philip, the 16-year-old adopted son of the mill owner, reluctantly murder a soldier from a local fort who tries to force his way in. A few days later, a second soldier attempts to gain entry. Philip, alone this time, can't shoot the man, and the youth and soldier end up quarantined together. Yet despite the town's precautions, the plague arrives and wreaks graphically depicted havoc. Debut novelist Mullen patiently unfolds the plot, using historical facts as a springboard. His long and absorbing novel is 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. Recommended for all collections. —Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta, NY
Library Journal

Set in 1918 against the backdrop of World War I and the influenza epidemic, this ambitious debut novel draws several vivid parallels with current times.... Although the novel is too long and, in places, too detailed, its foreboding atmosphere and grim story line exert considerable pull.  —Joanne Wilkinson

A progressive community buckles under a double whammy: the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and the hatreds stirred by American participation in WWI. Deep in the evergreens north of Seattle, a company town revolves around its timber mill. Owner Charles Worthy founded Commonwealth in 1916, and two years later, the town is thriving. The workers own their homes and set the rules, dispensing with police. After nearby Timber Falls is hit by the flu, a majority of Commonwealth's residents decide to quarantine the town. Armed volunteers guard the one access road. Worthy's adopted son, 16-year-old Philip, is on guard duty with Graham, an older man he regards as a big brother, when a disheveled soldier emerges from the woods and ignores orders to stop. Graham shoots him dead. Some days later, Philip is the lone sentry when a second soldier appears. After a skirmish, Philip and the soldier are detained by another guard, also deemed a possible carrier. Meanwhile, Commonwealth has its first flu death: a Canadian who snuck into Timber Falls for some liquor. The sickness travels with astonishing speed; fear and suspicion infect the town along with the epidemic. As supplies dwindle, the store and community gardens are plundered. Mullen has a good premise for a disaster story, but a fatal weakness for melodrama. Graham kills the imprisoned soldier, believing him to be the original carrier. Philip, back home but now stricken himself, rises from his sickbed to confront Graham; then a delegation of lawmen and goons from Timber Falls forces its way into town to arrest draft-dodgers, including the sick and contagious. Mullen's debut gets mileage out of the gruesome epidemic and contains some interesting historical nuggets, but it fails to mesh its grim subject matter with convincing individual narratives.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. In what ways does Thomas Mullen use foreshadowing throughout the novel?

2. The Commonwealth quarantine is rife with moral ramifications. What are its consequences? Was Charles’ decision reasonable? What would you have done in his place?

3. The gauze mask has a ubiquitous presence throughout the story. What is its symbolic significance?

4. The flu often causes its victims to experience delusions. What other examples of delusion, literal or figurative, can you find throughout the novel?

5. Rebecca, Elsie, Tamara and other women in the novel have important influences on their male loved ones. What do these women have in common? In what ways do they exert their influence?

6. What is Frank’s significance? Why does Philip grow so attached to him?

7. Does the relationship between Frank and the C.O. resonate with Philip and Graham’s relationship? If so, how?

8. Were you surprised by Philip’s recovery? Why do you think Mullen allows him (and the rest of the Worthy family) to survive?

9. How has Philip developed by the end of the novel? Has his character progressed or regressed? Having been “stripped of so many things that he thought had defined who he was” (page 387), how, then, should we view his prior experiences?

10. Philip initially calls Graham a murderer for shooting the first soldier, but ultimately ends up shooting Bartrum to save Graham’s life. Is there a difference between their acts? Where does Philip and Graham’s relationship stand by the end of the novel?

11. A prominent motif throughout the novel is that of starting over after experiencing loss. Bearing this in mind, is your interpretation of the ending optimistic or pessimistic?

12. Would you have responded to the crisis more like Philip or like Graham?

13. Do you think Philip and Graham’s behavior differed in part because of their situations? Does that make their decisions about the soldier more or less sympathetic/understandable?

(Copyright 2007 by the Random House Publishing Group. Permission for use granted by Random House Inc.)

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