The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen

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The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A town struggling to keep itself protected from the global 1918 influenza epidemic finds more human visitors just as problematic in this gripping and well worthwhile read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN: 978-0007235001

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The northwestern US, 1918. The town of Commonwealth has successfully kept a lot of its small population within its boundaries, despite many conscription drives. First, because its main industry is the sawmill, which provides a lot of wood for those newfangled airplane things, so many men are deemed essential war workers; secondly, because the town is so unusually remote. Founded as a socialist experiment almost, it lies fifteen miles down a small track leading from what's already one step off nowhere, in the general region of Seattle. It might be what would in more recent times be disparaged as a hippy commune, but it keeps its citizens remote from, and, it admits, a generation backward to, the rest of the world.

The town is now more worried about keeping its population away from the pandemic that is the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, which will eventually kill more people than World War One, and scupper many people's plans at rebuilding after the war.

As a result, Commonwealth has barricaded the sole track to its borders and is now keeping armed guard - guards such as sixteen-year-old Philip, and Graham, who will be instrumental in this book's plot.

The milieu of the story is one of fragility everywhere one looks. The people are fragile - this is still frontier territory, with the dangerous element of pioneering communities in backwoods anywhere. The community, as noted, is fragile - people conscripted, if of the right age and not better used elsewhere. Bodies are fragile - Philip has lost a foot, and Graham is minus a pinkie because of an industrial accident. Political consensus is fragile - other mill owners suffering strikes and socialist stirrings with bullets and reduced wages and conditions.

And what could be less worthwhile than the gauze masks that are the only protection proffered against the flu bug? It's always stirring to realise just how backward the medical science was, despite it being the world of mustard gas over the trenches.

So, in this milieu comes the plot - one of visitors. The first seems fine - he drives to the barricade, trying to sell Liberty Bonds, and drives away again. The second is more serious, and what happens to him turns Graham completely, into a manic protector of his town, permanently on guard. When it comes to the third visitor who arrives with Philip alone on duty, well, things get more serious still - and as for non-human arrivals, well it just doesn't bear thinking about.

Luckily, Thomas Mullen has thought about it a lot and has provided us with an excellent plot for this first novel. It raises moral questions about the pair of guards, and for Philip's foster father, who founded Commonwealth around the mill. It's one of those plots where the less said about it by me is the better, however much might be guessable from any summary. It successfully turns some of this novel into a literary thriller.

The characters are very well written as well, although the gossipy females surrounding Philips's young love are a bit soapy. All the main characters have perfectly fine story arcs, and smaller characters that might even arrive in the last twenty pages are just as well defined.

Perhaps the main character is that of Commonwealth itself, this self-built little community struggling to protect itself from the outside world. You can easily imagine life there, although for me I had to mentally enlarge it when people needed to track around it by horse-drawn cart halfway through (I'd pictured it as a lot smaller) - just think about a town trying to protect itself from flu when everyone sneezes from sawdust...

There is very little I found fault with in this book - some flashback scenes at the beginning are disguised exposition, but disguised well. These add to the social and political details we would never be expected to know about the scene, and are necessary - just one more level in which this book is of interest.

But it's as a straight entertaining and accurate-sounding read that I would praise it. I'm sure I would have qualms about getting too close to a grubby library copy of it in a couple of years' time, as it really puts you on edge about the encroaching disease.

The Last Town on Earth really absorbed me into its world, and I can't think of another historical fiction like it for planting the reader so well into a small rural environment and yet engaging its characters and reader so well with the global picture. I certainly recommend it, and thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag. All in all, it's an intelligent and enjoyable way to pass a few hours. You could say they flu by.

We also have a review of Darktown by Thomas Mullen. If you think you'd enjoy this book then you might also enjoy The Pesthouse by Jim Crace.

Booklists.jpg The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books.

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