Random House, 2006, 392 pages
The Last Town on Earth centers on the inhabitants of a small logging town in Washington and what happens when they take drastic measures (quarantine) to try and protect themselves from the virulent and deadly flu epidemic of 1918. When a deserting WWI soldier demands sanctuary, events are set in motion that change the town forever.
The Last Town on Earth is a place called Commonwealth, in the back woods of Washington state in the year 1918. At this time, the Pacific Northwest is still considerably less settled than the rest of the country. Life is hard, technological advancements like automobiles and telephones are not commonplace, and the germ theory of disease is still a newfangled idea.
It is also a time of labor violence. Unions are gaining power, but the union movement is also tied to the rise of Marxism, socialism, and anarchism.
Meanwhile, the United States has entered the Great War in Europe. Back home, there are draft dodgers, resisters, and peace protesters who object to President Wilson's "rich man's war," but the Sedition Act of 1918 made it effectively illegal to express opposition to the government.
Finally, the influenza pandemic, or so-called Spanish flu, is spreading around the world. It would eventually kill many times more people than the war. (According to Wikipedia, at a conservative estimate, it killed 3% of the world's population.)
Thomas Mullen draws on all these historical events in his novel about a mill town that tries to quarantine itself against the flu. Commonwealth is run by an idealistic mill owner who is neither a socialist nor an anarchist, as his rivals claim, but he does pay and treat his workers better than mill workers are treated in surrounding towns, and so those who live in this secluded little community consider themselves very fortunate.
When news of the influenza reaches them, cutting swaths of death across the country, the mill owner and the town doctor confer and then advocate quarantining themselves: no one will be allowed to enter the town, and anyone who leaves will not be allowed back in. They hope it will only be for a couple of weeks, until the epidemic passes. Being located as they are, with no telephones or radios, it's easy for them to be cut off from the outside world. The community votes on it and agrees to the quarantine, posting armed guards to keep strangers out.
When a soldier from a nearby army base, apparently a deserter, comes stumbling out of the woods asking for shelter, it starts a chain of events that brings violence, discord, and death to the town.
I enjoyed this book a lot. The plot was not a very complicated one, but it took several turns as new character entered the picture and told their stories. Mullen talks about different aspects of the history of this time period ‐ from labor activists to peace activists to war propaganda, the draft, Conscientious Objectors, and what people knew and didn't know about influenza. He uses his characters to examine each issue, sometimes spending part of a chapter to give a minor character's backstory. If you don't care much for history or for lulls in the pace of the story while a character is fleshed out, then this book isn't for you, but there really weren't any boring parts for me. Some characters were more interesting and well-rounded than others, but they were pretty human and varied for the most part, with almost nobody easily categorized in stark moral terms.
The driving force of this book, as in the other Thomas Mullen book I have read, the science fictional novel The Revisionists, was human choices. Everyone acts on what they consider to be good and rational motivations; some people are rational and some aren't, and some are selfish while others are thinking of the greater good, but the consequences are always a result of their actions, not their intentions. Mullen has a talent for this kind of storytelling, making the plot take a back seat to the characters, whose personal dramas shape the plot rather than the other way around.
That said, I can't say that I found any of the characters particularly memorable. It was their decisions and the outcomes that stick in the mind. I found myself questioning who was right, who was really making the best decision, given the information available to them, and what I would do in such a situation. This is not a thriller, but you probably won't predict exactly how it ends, though it's inevitable that it's going to end badly for some.
Verdict: A good, thoughtful novel, not really slow-paced but the action occurs in starts and stops between more reflective interludes. Recommended for anyone who likes historical novels about this time period, or stories with a lot of insoluble ethical conundrums and imperfect people making good and bad choices.
Also by Thomas Mullen: My review of The Revisionists.