The Last Town on Earth: A Novel

by Thomas Mullen

Hardcover, 2006

Call number




Random House (2006), Edition: First Edition, 416 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:A town under quarantine during the 1918 flu epidemic must reckon with forces beyond their control in a powerful, sweeping novel of morality in a time of upheaval   â??An American variation on Albert Camusâ?? The Plague.â?ťâ??Chicago Tribune   NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY USA TODAY AND CHICAGO TRIBUNE â?˘ WINNER OF THE JAMES FENIMORE COOPER PRIZE FOR HISTORICAL FICTION 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 townâ??s founder, it is a haven in another senseâ??as the first place in his life heâ??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 virus 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, tiredâ??and apparently illâ??soldier presents himself at the townâ??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 valueâ??love, patriotism, community, family, friendshipâ??not to mention the townâ??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… (more)

Media reviews

Mullen’s debut novel is as upright, square-jawed and serious as the people he writes about and, alas, as wooden. He has a good story to tell, weaving together the flu epidemic, America’s entry into the First World War and its pioneering history of labour organisation. He has done his research
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thoroughly and developed his characters carefully. What he has failed to do is successfully embed his work in the fiction.
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3 more
Under siege, the virtuous city — a symbol of freedom and safety — instantly becomes a prison. Step by step, the citizens divide into the guards and the guarded. Outward physical health comes to seem more and more like a sign of inward moral corruption.
A progressive community buckles under a double whammy: the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and the hatreds stirred by American participation in WWI.... 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
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with convincing individual narratives.
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...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
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grim fascination of the narrative, however, will keep readers turning the pages.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member santhony
It is somewhat surprising that one of the pivotal historical events of the 20th century, the Spanish Flu, has been almost completely ignored in contemporary literature. To my knowledge, only John Barry's outstanding work, The Great Influenza, tackles the subject with scope and depth.

This novel
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explores the outbreak of the Spanish Flu from the standpoint of an isolated Northwest sawmill town. Commonwealth, Washington was founded and managed as a sort of commune in response to the bitter labor unrest felt throughout the region during the era. With outbreak of the flu, the town counsel elects to enforce a quarantine from the outside world. As outsiders attempt to enter, a riveting story of survival and human nature emerges.

With respect to the subject matter, the writing and pace of the narrative, I have no complaints. I enjoyed reading the novel and appreciated the author's ability to shed light on a subject and an era in our history that is seldom addressed.

My only complaint is somewhat personal, though to my mind important. Much of the novel centers on the status of Commonwealth as a sawmill town and its connection to the forest products of the region. This being the case, it is almost inexcusable that the author would consistently use incorrect nomenclature when referring to aspects of the industry. Being in the forest products industry, it rankles when the terms "timber", "logs" and "lumber" are used interchangably or incorrectly. Each has a specific meaning. Timber refers to trees standing in the woods. Logs are trees that have been severed but not finally manufactured. Lumber is the finished product of a sawmill. So, when the author consistently refers to the sawmill selling its timber, he is misspeaking. Sawmills buy timber, cut it into logs and manufacture it into lumber. Likewise, references to lumber camps should instead refer to logging camps.

This might seem a small matter, but if an author elects to make forest products a major part of his story line, it is incumbent upon him to do so accurately. It would certainly seem to be simple enough to have his manuscript vetted by someone with some knowledge of the subject. If an author is so casual and sloppy with what would seems to be such a major part of his story line, how can I assume that many of the other facts or constructs of the novel are accurate? I'm aware that this is a novel and not a history book, but this does not excuse blatant inaccuracies when applied to the background of the novel.
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LibraryThing member wispywillow
This was one of the best books I have read all year.

Back in WW1, my town was home to Camp Sherman...and during the war, Spanish Influenza broke out, killing many, many people.

This much I knew; but I didn't know much else.

I didn't know that the Spanish flu, for some reason, attacked people in their
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prime--rather than being dangerous mainly to the very old, the very young, or the already sick as most flus do.

I didn't know that there were towns in the U.S. that completely isolated themselves during the epidemic, hoping to prevent the illness from entering their community. Some towns were successful in this; others were not.

Though this book is a work of fiction, it in incredibly informative about how the Spanish Influenza attacked its victims.

It is a story of paranoia, anger, fear, hatred--all the ugly aspects of humanity. But there is also love there, too, and innocence.

Philip is perhaps the most adorable teenaged protagonists I have ever come across, and his struggles left me in tears more than once.

If you have any interest in history, WW1, or just enjoy stories about human nature, I highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member lyzadanger
I can't believe how much I wanted to read this book. I coveted it when it was in hardback, read reviews of it obsessively, and finally allowed myself to buy it in paperback. Then it sat on my shelves for a few months because of all the high-priority stuff that had stacked up in front of it.

I loved
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the concept (quarantined Pacific Northwest town in the time of the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918), the setting, the reviews I'd read.

But, strangely, I didn't really enjoy the book. For one, Mullen's writing style is not my thing. He tends to say hokey things like "bullets slammed into flesh" and begins a lot of sentences with "Many a night" which feels somewhat stilted and archaic. He'll repeat the same word several times within a few sentences or paragraphs (e.g. "banter").

It's not a bad book, but it doesn't feel as polished or as meaningful as I would have expected, given all the good press. There is something about it, maybe the overemphasis on Douglas firs, that makes it obvious that the writer doesn't live 'round here (Pac NW). There is no dearth of grimness in the novel, either, and a surprising amount of violence--neither of which is bad on its own but feels harsh when following a lot of not-terribly-well-written chapters.

The historical fiction aspect is not bad, and feels well-researched, though the speaking patterns of the characters doesn't feel quite dated enough to seem 1918-ish. The plot is good, and is the driving force of the book. It twists enough to make this a page-turner, almost enough to make it feel like a horror novel in a few places.

I had recommended that my book club read this book a few months ago, but would probably not recommend it now. It's just not special enough.
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LibraryThing member BCCJillster
A morally challenging, but NOT stuffy, book, if you let yourself consider the choices these folks had to make when faced with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. A small mill town in the US Northwest votes to impose a reverse quarantine to keep the flu out and then has to deal with the consequences
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of tht decision. A good read.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Multi-layered morality tale with a compelling plot. I hope we are not faced with an epidemic requiring quarantine in our time or our children's. Also, I learned that there was an active anti-war movement during WWI. Excellent debut novel.
LibraryThing member Cygnus555
This was a promising first book. I look forward to his next. A very clever premise and I had a lot of fun reading it.
LibraryThing member mhaley
This offering, by this first time author, just didn't work for me at all. The plot was thin to say the least, and characters development was even thinner. "Pa, do you think the flu will come here too", must have been said 50 times. This work won the James Fenimore Cooper award, wow I've lost all
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respect for that award. Philp Roth is on that list, Mullen couldn't dream of even being mentioned in the same breath as one of the greatest living American authors. 15 readers gave this a rating of 5. I just don't get how one could get it that kind of rating. I read or listen to over 100 books a year, and this work is definately one of the duds of all-time. Sorry Mr. Mullen.
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LibraryThing member ragerdk
Interesting novel set in World War I era. Have read so much about World War II difficulties and perceptions, this book contained a lot of information new to me about World War I struggles in America.
Well written. Somewhat unsettling to me because main character gets unjustly treated.
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
The basic story is wonderful -- a small logging town in the Pacific Northwest quarantines itself in the midst of the 1918 outbreak of influenza with tragic results. This novel is, however, very character driven, and so it takes awhile to get into the story because the author takes a good deal of
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time to introduce the players, set the scene (in its historical context, where there is a lot happening), and then he gets down to the business at hand.

Once the story got rolling, however, I was hooked and couldn't stop listening. It's one of those books that really makes you stop and take a look at yourself as a human being, and I think that's why I liked it so very much. The whole time, and in different situations, I would find myself wondering what I would do if I were in that little town, faced with what these people were faced with. While we're very far removed from 1918, after Katrina, I've been wondering a lot about what people do in an abnormal situation just to survive that they probably would not do in their normal lives. It's really something to think about, and in that sense, the book is pertinent to modern times.

I think the book went on too long, though; perhaps the last part of the book could have been skipped, making it a bit more poignant and more focused on the effects of the quarantine itself. Other than that, if you read this one, beware that it will take some time to get into, but once you're there, it's wonderful.
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LibraryThing member FicusFan
This is a book for a RL book group. I took time off in the middle to read other books. I got to a point where bad things were going to happen and I just didn't want to face it. I kept putting the book down and delaying my reading. Its not a bad book at all, in fact the characters seem vulnerable so
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I didn't want to watch them suffer.

It is set in a small town that has been built for logging and the local mill, very bare bones, few amenities. It is in the Pacific Northwest, the fictional town of Commonwealth, Washington. The man who started it wanted to run a mill his way, and treat his workers decently. It is during a time of labor strife, Red scares, and the end of WWI. The flu is also stalking the land, and people are dying fast and horribly.

The isolation of the town will not protect them, if they associate with others by allowing them into Commonwealth, or by visiting other towns themselves. They decide as a town to enact a quarantine and prevent ingress or egress until the flu is gone.

The quarantine sets up a conflict when a sick soldier comes to the log gate and wants in. He is lost, cold, and starving.

There are 2 young men on guard. A mill worker in his 20s with a pregnant wife, and small daughter. Graham remembers the loss of an earlier love, and the violence of labor strikes and the mill owners. He vows to protect his wife and child and his town.

The other guard, Philip is the adopted son of the mill owner Charles Worthy. He is only 16, and he looks up to Graham. Phil had a rootless, fatherless life with his wayward mother until the car crash that killed her, her current low life paramour and crippled and orphaned him. He wants to prove worthy of the love of his adopted family, and the trust of the town.

Both guards are feeling inadequate and they express their anxiety in different ways. Graham is aggressive and will fight. Philip is afraid and wants to avoid making a mistake.

Graham shoots the soldier who refuses to stop advancing. Philip is trying to reason with the soldier, to get him to stop. He freezes at the crucial moment and Graham is the one who acts alone. The action drives Phil and Graham apart. It also introduces an immoral element into the town. Its OK to deny help to strangers, ifs OK to kill to protect themselves. Eventually the townspeople use that reasoning and unfeeling immorality against each other. Once the line is crossed it is easier to justify everything that comes after.

Philip is standing guard alone and a second soldier arrives at the gate. Philip decides to hide him in one of the empty cabins at the edge of town. He was going to let him sleep, warm up, and bring him food. Once the soldier was rested he was supposed to leave. But Philip is discovered and he and the new soldier are kept in the house together in an internal quarantine. They are supposed to be released in 48 hours if they aren't sick. Phil is fine and so is the soldier, but they decide to keep him prisoner.

The town starts to break down when the flu gets in. The town also has to deal with the actions of a nearby city. They want to shut the mill, kill competition, and prevent Charles from implementing new labor practices.

The writing is light and smooth, and it just flows. The story is interesting, and the characters are well done. There is a lot of great information about the conditions during WWI, the labor issues, and the effect of the flu.
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LibraryThing member nicole0112
I enjoy reading about events that have shaped history, especially the more tragic ones. This is what led me to pick up The Last Town on Earth. This book about the 1918 flu pandemic manages to cover a frequently sensationalized topic–pandemics in general– in a thought provoking and sensitive
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Thomas Mullen depicts a town in Washington that in all out effort to protect itself from the pandemic that had been sweeping the nation, shut itself off from the rest of the world. Initially the plan seems to work, but soon a solider fresh from the battlefields of World War I comes to the town and demands to be let it. This is where the basis of the conflict in the book begins as the people in the town struggle morally with their desire to save themselves and help the veteran at the same time.

“'He’s still coming,'” Philip said helplessly, trying not to panic. He hurriedly rolled up the sleeves of Graham’s coat, wondering why he felt fid-gety and nervous when Graham seemed to become even more still than usual."

Mullen manages to skillfully stitch together real events like the massacre in Everett into the background of the tale without exposing the fictional world that he has created. Despite the subject matter, the story is not depressing. Instead, it manages to instill hope that humanity will do the right thing when presented with a moral conflict. Each character seems real and and the reader can easily sympathize with the decisions that are being wrestled with and encourages the reader to mull over how they would react in a similar situation (such as the recent swine flu panic).

The only criticism I can offer is that the writing style can be difficult. This is Mullen’s first book and his lack of experience is evident. The writing can be stilted and is riddled with cliches-but not so horrible as to be a deterrent. The character development and his ability to create a intriguing story line more than make up for his lack of polish, something that could be easily fixed by a strong editor.
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LibraryThing member redrhondahonda
I loved this book and put in my top ten favorites! The story draws you and and doesn't let you go. It also peaked my curiosity about how the spanish flu impacted our world but also what conscientious obejectors were during WW1. This is a story for everyone.
LibraryThing member nyiper
The audio version of this book is wonderful and the author's note at the end was so helpful. I kept wondering how he could imagine all of this in such a believable way but his description at the very end had the solution. But what an incredible book---how completely sad that history keeps repeating
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itself. We just don't seem to be able to put history to use, or to even remember it, so that we don't keep doing the same things, over and over and over. It was fiction that seemed all too real.
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LibraryThing member SFCC
I loved this book and put in my top ten favorites! The story draws you and and doesn't let you go. It also peaked my curiosity about how the spanish flu impacted our world but also what conscientious obejectors were during WW1. This is a story for everyone.
LibraryThing member akritz
Very interesting and thought provoking. The book is set in the town of Commonwealth during the flu epidemic of 1918. The town decides to do a reverse quarentine with armed guards and all. Will this keep the flu out of the town? Eventually the town turns on itself. I can't decide how I feel about
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the decisions they made. What would I have done?
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LibraryThing member tibobi
The Short of It:

The Last Town on Earth is an interesting story about trust, right and wrong and what people are willing to do when lives are on the line.

The Rest of It:

A friend recommend this book to me well over a year ago. In my mind, I thought it would be more dystopian in feel, but it wasn’t
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that kind of book at all. The story is about Commonwealth, a small town in the Pacific Northwest that gets hit with the flu during the 1918 epidemic that swept through the nation. In an effort to protect the town, the town folk decide to enact a quarantine. This means that the residents must stay within the town, and no one from outside of the town can come in.

At first, this works fine. The town is self-sufficient to a degree. There is plenty of food and other supplies and most of the folks feel that the quarantine is a necessary precaution. But as the flu ravages other towns and there is talk of war spies, the people of Commonwealth realize that they may have to protect their town from more than just the flu.

While on guard duty, Philip & Graham encounter a soldier looking for shelter and food. Graham’s handling of the situation disturbs Philip and causes him to replay the incident over and over again in his mind. The encounter affects him so deeply, that when he is faced with a similar situation, he makes a decision that puts the entire town at risk.

The story was a bit slow for me. It took a good 200 pages for me to get into it but there was something about the writing that kept me going. The depiction of the town itself was spot on. I could easily picture the setting in my mind and the main characters and the situations they faced were well-developed. I had some issues with the development of some of the other characters though. Their demeanor did not match their age, but in a frontier town in the early 1900′s, that is to be expected. Young people held more responsibility in those days.

Although this story deals with a pandemic it’s not like any of the other novels I’ve read that deal with the same topic. The flu itself takes a backseat to the other themes within the novel which include, fierce loyalty, the will to survive, trust and honor. Not a page-turner but I liked it.
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LibraryThing member AramisSciant
Historical novel set during WWI that gets too sluggish and eventually too boring with its obvious political commentary and skin-deep allegories and parallels. The setting promised much more.
LibraryThing member PirateJenny
Commonwealth is a small mining town in the Pacific Northwest. It was created as a haven from the mining practices in the rest of the country and the owner (and founder of Commonwealth) treats his workers well and pays them a good wage. Everyone in Commonwealth helps each other, looks out for each
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other. It's early in the new century. 1918 to be exact.

Rumors start spreading. Flu without a cure. Flu that kills in a matter of days. Flu that spreads like wildfire. The town decides to quarantine itself. Roads are closed, guards are posted. They ration supplies, grow food--nobody wants to risk traveling to the nearest city.

Then a solider shows up at the roadblock. On duty are Philip Worthy, adopted son of the town's founder, and his best friend Graham. The soldier is desperate. So are the men. The result of this meeting affects not only the men present, but the town as well.

And what happens if the quarantine doesn't keep the flu out? What then would the encounter with the soldier mean?
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LibraryThing member msf59
A small mill town, called Commonwealth, nestled in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest, was constructed as a sanctuary for workers. Housing was included, along with a fair wage. The year was 1918, and the Spanish Flu has been raging, along with the first World War. Commonwealth decides to
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quarantine itself, setting up guards around the perimeter. This leads to many conflicts with the outside world, along with struggles on the inside. An ambitious first novel. The narrative is not as smooth as Mullen’s later works but I enjoyed this very timely and disturbing story.
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LibraryThing member janerawoof
Prescient for the times we are living in right now with the pandemic; amazing how the author got so much right in his descriptions of the disease, although this book was written in 2006. Set in the fictional logging town of Commonwealth, Washington, it tells the story of a small town that
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quarantines itself from the outside world during the Spanish flu years; all are forbidden to enter under threat of death. Should people leave, they mayn't return. A kind act by one of the guards, a young man named Philip, brings repercussions to the town. A subplot involves the Great War and soldiers. Is the soldier to whom Philip shows mercy a German spy in disguise? Has the soldier brought the pestilence to the town, with Philip its unwitting conduit? The inhabitants do get the disease. If not from Philip, from where?
The seed of the idea from the book arose from the author's having read of such towns that quarantined themselves at that time, but this book is completely fictional. A fascinating, unputdownable tale.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Eye_Gee
I read a review of this book that built my hopes up, perhaps unrealistically high. I was disappointed.
LibraryThing member Pammypam
VERY enjoyable.
LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
I thought this book was fantastic. It's a different kind of plot than you usually find. The historical detail is fascinating and I was interested in the philosophical questions that the book raises. I do have some quibbles--all of the women in the book feel pretty cookie-cutter--but all in all it's
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one of the best works of fiction I've read in a while.

Also, if you are into Downton Abbey -- this book is set in the same time period, but has an entirely different milieu and serves as a great counterpoint.
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LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
Hm.  How on earth had I gotten the impression that this was SF, and the title literal?  Turns out it's historical fiction, and I'm not in the mood.  I did try, since I had it in hand, but the first 44 pp did not convince me to read further.
LibraryThing member auntmarge64
In 1918, Commonwealth is a young logging town in rural Washington, founded by a mill owner and his socialist wife sickened by anti-union violence. They are determined to give workers a greater share in profits and improved living and work conditions, a stance which has made them hated by mill
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owners in nearby towns. When the Spanish Flu breaks out, the town votes to isolate itself to avoid contagion, stationing armed men to guard the road. While ignorance of the flu's cause leads to tragedies within the town, the sheriff and the largest mill owner from a nearby town decide to attack, the former suspicious of the town's patriotism and the latter determined to destroy the town's lure to his own workers.

Interesting historical fiction, although the characterizations tend to be limited somewhat to good guys and bad guys. Some actions of the main characters, particularly those townsfolk who don't approve of the temporary quarantine, make no sense and seem to be included just to raise tension. However, the story kept me wanting to read to find out what happened, and I'll read more by this author.
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