Thomas Mullen's first novel, The Last Town on Earth, is set in a period of American history that its writers have largely neglected, a time when the country was fighting both World War I and the great Spanish flu pandemic. Amidst the turmoil caused by war and illness, the country was also struggling to settle the conflicts inherent in a capitalistic system facing a strong push from the growing organized labor movement.
In Mullen's novel, Commonwealth, a somewhat Utopian logging community deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, was created by a mill owner who was fed up with the way that his family treated the workers at their own lumber mill. Breaking with his family, he built an entire community based on the equality of all of its citizens, even to building identical homes for everyone living and working there. Because the lumber industry was considered critical to the war effort, his workers were routinely exempted from military service immediately following their "enlistments." In fact, because of new contracts with the federal government, the community of Commonwealth thrived until mill owner Charles Worthy reached a fateful conclusion about the flu threat.
Worthy felt a tremendous loyalty to his town and to those who had joined him in creating something so special, and he wanted desperately to protect them from the approaching flu epidemic. Despite the relative isolation of the community he knew that it was just a matter of time before the epidemic found them. In a town hall vote, the citizens of Commonwealth decided to quarantine the town, cutting themselves off from contact with the outside world and even placing armed guards at the only entrance into the town. But when two soldiers wander out of the forest on separate occasions seeking food and shelter, decisions are made that result in tragic consequences for Commonwealth and everyone living behind its barriers.
The Last Town on Earth is a cautionary tale that draws, sometimes a little too obviously, on the parallels between the modern world and 1918 America. As in 1918, we face what has become an increasingly unpopular war that has split the country almost down the middle between those who support it and those who oppose it. We live with the imminent possibility that some version of the "bird flu" will strike the human population in a manner every bit as devastating to it as the way in which the Spanish flu epidemic tore it apart. Thomas Mullen tells the story of how those who came before us responded when faced with that combination of circumstances and choices, showing us what they did right and what they did wrong. He reminds us of the many lessons to be learned from history.
The audio version of the book, 13 discs and almost 16 hours long, was excellent. It was read by Henry Strozier, a professional actor who so consistently used different voices and cadences for each of the main characters that I was able to recognize them merely from the sound of his voice. His reading was almost conversational in style, never rushed or dryly presented, and his performance was a definite plus.
Rated at: 3.0