Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Last Town on Earth

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


  1. Thanks for the review! I'd been thinking about adding this book to my list, but I've seen other reviews say the same thing, that the parallels to our day are a little too obvious.
    Also I've been pondering trying out some books on tape/cd, but I'm not sure I'll get as much out of it. If you don't mind my asking, do you often listen to books and how do you think it compares to reading?

  2. Thanks for the review! What an interesting concept for a novel--it actually makes me want to read some non-fiction on the subject of that time in our country's history...

  3. I've had this one "on the list" and "off the list". Every time I take it off, something draws me back. I literally just crossed it off yesterday! Hmmm

    Pardon my interference...

    Matt ~ I love books on CD! It took me a while to get used to listening due to a wondering mind, but now...they are great. I have to say that I have regretted listening to some instead of reading them for the simple fact that I missed the joy of turning the pages as fast as I could during a great read. :)

  4. Matt, audio books, IMO, serve a definite purpose. I don't listen to any of my favorite authors or to certain types of books because I know how much I enjoy the reading experience when it comes to those. However, I listen to lots of light fiction, or to thrillers, when I'm driving or doing rather mindless tasks around the house that keep me confined to one spot for a while...like painting or cleaning, etc.

    Audio books will never take the place of the real thing but they are a good substitute for those times when actual reading is impossible.

  5. Gentle Reader, that period is more interesting to me now than before I listened to this book. For whatever reason, I don't really know much about it and I was fascinated by some of the conflicts described in the book. I'm looking for other books that cover that period, fiction or non-fiction, so let me know if you find something good. Thanks.

  6. Put it back on your list, Joy, and I think you'll be happy that you did. The reader on this one is one of the absolute best I've ever heard.

  7. Wow great review! I read a review for this somewhere else and was intrigued but apparently I forgot to add it to my TBR list. I look forward to reading it!

  8. I hope you enjoy it, Amy. It will make you think about our own future...

  9. I thought this one looked interesting. I had heard some of the same criticisms you make. I do still want to give it a try, but I think I will wait until it comes out in paperback. Thanks for the review!