Taking place in a tiny logging settlement in northern Washington during the influenza pandemic of 1918, Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth takes that horrifying time and makes it the backdrop of one fictional town’s struggle for survival in a changing world. With World War I raging in Europe and fear of spies everywhere, the flu struck at a time of intense turmoil and paranoia for the American people.
The story is set in Commonwealth, a small and insular logging town that was founded two years previous to the start of the novel. The de facto leader of the town is Charles Worthy, the founder and manager of the town and the mill. When the flu epidemic starts to spread across the country, Charles makes the difficult decision to block off the one road leading to Commonwealth, keeping the town’s inhabitants in and the disease, hopefully, out.
Charles’ 16-year-old adopted son, Philip, decides to prove his manhood by helping guard the blockade with his older friend Graham, whom he much admires. Things quickly go awry when a lost soldier stumbles through the woods and over the roadblock, forcing the men to make a choice – kill an innocent man to keep their hamlet free of infection, or let him in and reap the possible consequences.
Compounding the problem, people from neighboring towns wonder why the people of Commonwealth would sequester themselves – are they harboring spies? – and threaten to infiltrate the village as well. Why should one town be safe from the disease that has ravaged other communities nearby? The claustrophobic atmosphere within the town and the invasive forces without add an element of panic to the already terrifying prospect of disease, and Mullen does a good job of keeping the tension high.
Mullen’s choice of setting and circumstance is inspired – the spread of the disease and the horrors of infection sound straight out of some science fiction story. The symptoms of this particular strain of influenza were particularly frightening: unceasing coughing fits that often led to the victims coughing blood, skin that turned blue from lack of oxygen, all culminating in severe pneumonia that ultimately suffocated the infected. The historical accuracy elevates The Last Town on Earth to a level beyond your typical “killer disease” novel, while the fiction format informs us about the last modern plague without being dry or academic.
Here’s the bad news: This is very much a first novel, excellent as it may be. The novel’s biggest fault is its frequent allusions to something the reader will find out later, with phrases like “since the accident,” or “what happened back in Everett” tossed liberally throughout. It feels like a cheap trick to keep us reading, and Mullen’s story is enough of a page-turner without these sorts of teasers. Often events take place in the story that seem written and set up specifically to make the story more tragic, and one gets the sense that the author was trying a bit too hard to point out the horrors of the situation. It’s another example of Mullen seeming not to trust the story to have enough impact. Indeed, the author’s seeming attempts to hold our interest only take away from the twists and turns of the mostly excellent plot. Still, the novel is good enough to forgive the author’s occasional lack of confidence.
In the end, one hopes that Mullen has not used up his best idea on his first novel, because this was a bloody great idea. The themes are familiar, but the backdrop of war and plague make the story unlike anything I’ve read before. It would be wonderful to see what Thomas Mullen has for us next time. In short, this was a fairly well written and engrossing read, and a strong first novel from a promising writer.