The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen

The question of what it means to be good is one that we can never answer, no matter what the philosophers and theologians might say. This is the epiphany I had about three quarters of the way through Thomas Mullen’s devastating novel, The Last Town on Earth. The novel opens on an ethical dilemma, played out in the real (well, fictional version of the real) world. A man and a teenager are guarding a road. Behind them is the town of Commonwealth, Washington, which has so far been spared the 1918 Spanish Flu. They’ve placed themselves under quarantine to try to ride out the pandemic. Unfortunately for the man and the teen, another man in soldier’s clothes has just begged them for food and shelter so that he doesn’t die of exposure. What would be the right thing to do? Save the one man and risk the many? Or shoot the man when he refuses to go away to save the town’s inhabitants?

There are many kinds of good (or “good”) people in The Last Town on Earth. There are characters—like the teenager, Philip, who we meet at the beginning of the novel—who constantly worry if they’re doing the right thing. Philip agonizes over his part in the disaster that opens the novel and its fall out. His adopted father, Charles Worthy, who owns the mill that fuels the town, increasingly wonders if the quarantine was the right thing to do or if it would’ve been better to leave Commonwealth open. And the town doctor, Dr. Banes, tries to wring every bit of knowledge out of letters from a colleague and his old medical books about influenza to try and help Charles make the right decisions about averting the flu. On the other hand, there are characters like Graham—the man we meet along with Philip at the beginning of The Last Town on Earth—and several of the leading men in the neighboring town of Timber Falls, who never doubt that they are doing the right thing. They are more frightening than the Spanish Flu because they continue on wrecking things in the name of “doing the right thing.”

The Last Town on Earth begins a few weeks into Commonwealth’s quarantine, on the last day that things are relatively okay in the town. But after the stranger appears on the road to Commonwealth, everything goes rapidly to hell. Another stranger pops up on the road and refuses to go away. There’s a posse of upright citizens from Timber Falls who are sure that those Commonwealth folk are up to something anti-American and communistic because Charles insists on paying a living wage to his mill workers. When the flu inevitably breaks out anyway, because there is always someone in an attempted utopia who breaks the rules and messes things up. Philip et al. have enough on their plate even without their moral crises, though it seems as if all three of the main characters—Philip, Graham, and Charles—spend a lot of energy either worrying if they did the right thing or trying to rationalize their actions. It sounds a little wearying, but it’s not at all. Mullen’s characters are so human and fully developed that I could empathize with almost everyone.

Health poster, c. 1918 (Image via Wikicommons)

While the narrative mostly focuses on Philip and Graham and, to a lesser extent, Charles, there are several chapters narrated by tertiary characters or that consist solely of dialogue from the townspeople as rumors start to get out of control in the town. In an author’s note, Mullen discusses the multiple panics that descended on the United States at the end of World War I that inspired this novel. (Mullen has a deft hand with his research. The history in this book is very well done. I didn’t have any lingering questions or urges to dive into Wikipedia. I also never felt like I was in a seminar.) There’s the fear of the flu, obviously, but also fear of communism (the First Red Scare), the fear of German spies, fear of the draft, and fear of strikebreakers (there are multiple references to the Everett Massacre of 1917). Commonwealth and Timber Falls are a microcosm of all of these fears. The rumors and the characters’ actions get more frantic as these many fears grow stronger.

I wasn’t sure about The Last Town on Earth at first. I worried that it would be a series of ethical dilemmas without any psychological underpinning to make me really care about the consequences of the characters’ decisions. I’m glad I stuck with this book, however. With each chapter, the world of Commonwealth became increasingly real to me. I fretted as much as the characters did as they deliberated between all the bad options in front of them. Normally, when I read historical fiction, I wonder what I would have done if I was in that time and place. That didn’t happen with The Last Town on Earth. There are no clear answers to the questions presented in this book and that is, perhaps, the best thing in this terrific book.

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