Literature Annotations


Mullen, Thomas
The Last Town on Earth


Genre Novel (387 pp.)
KeywordsDeath and Dying, Epidemics, History of Medicine, Infectious Disease, Public Health, Scapegoating
SummaryThis tale narrates one town's attempt to isolate itself from the rapidly spreading influenza of 1918. Commonwealth is a fictional lumber mill town in western Washington state. The owner of the mill that is the economic center of this small village proposes, and sells to the residents, the plan for keeping the rest of the infected world from bringing disease into their midst. The single road into the relatively remote area is blocked and guarded by a rotating cadre of armed volunteers. The plan begins to fail as a stranger, a soldier claiming to be from a nearby military encampment, appears begging for food and shelter. He attempts to cross the barrier and is shot by one of the civilian guards.

The reader is introduced to the key players and the role of each in the town and in the evolving drama. The local medical practitioner struggles to advise the people, encouraging them to go along with the hardships created by not having access to supplies or the pleasures of visiting neighboring villages. Underlying the isolation is a history of political battles with the union and with competing timber companies, which bubbles to the surface as Commonwealth begins to lose its internal solidarity.

CommentaryThe author, in his note at the end of the work, credits a newspaper article about a town that attempted such a feat during the epidemic of 1918 as his stimulus for this novel. His research led him to John M. Barry's The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (see annotation) where he learned that several towns had attempted to isolate themselves from the world around them during this influenza epidemic. Inspired in part by Barry's history, Mullen creates his own fictional town and cast of characters. Albeit fiction, the story does explore some significant issues about human behavior under a stressful situation created by isolation and by fear of communicable disease-reminiscent of Camus' The Plague (see annotation and see also the annotation of the film). The plot is well orchestrated and tension maintained such that it reads well and should be of interest to those readers concerned with the impact of epidemic disease on the populace.
PublisherRandom House Trade Paperbacks
Edition2007
Place PublishedNew York
Miscellaneous First published 2006. The Last Town on Earth was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction.
Annotated by Willms, Janice L.
Date of Entry 07/14/08