The Last Town on Earth

The Last Town on Earth

3.7 34
by Thomas Mullen

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"Set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that America ever experienced - the 1918 flu - Thomas Mullen's first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval." "Deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the Pacific Northwest is a small mill town called Commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. For Philip Worthy, the…  See more details below


"Set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that America ever experienced - the 1918 flu - Thomas Mullen's first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval." "Deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the Pacific Northwest is a small mill town called Commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. For Philip Worthy, the adopted son of the town's founder, it is a haven in another sense - as the first place in his life he's had a loving family to call his own." "And yet, the ideals that define this outpost are being threatened from all sides. A world war is raging, and with the fear of spies rampant, the loyalty of all Americans is coming under scrutiny. Meanwhile, another shadow has fallen across the region in the form of a deadly illness striking down vast swaths of surrounding communities." When Commonwealth votes to quarantine itself against contagion, guards are posted at the single road leading in and out of town, and Philip Worthy is among them. He will be unlucky enough to be on duty when a cold, hungry, tired - and apparently ill - soldier presents himself at the town's doorstep begging for sanctuary. The encounter that ensues, and the shots that are fired, will have deafening reverberations throughout Commonwealth, escalating until every human value - love, patriotism, community, family, friendship - not to mention the town's very survival, is imperiled.

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Editorial Reviews

Max Byrd
Quietly, ominously, these details create a larger background we may recognize — a deeply unpopular war, a subservient press, a secretive vigilante-like group called the American Protective League, sponsored by the Department of Justice, which monitors the draft and suppresses dissent. As always, noncombatant politicians wage a comical war against language (substituting, say, "liberty cabbage" for "sauerkraut").
— The New York Times
Zofia Smardz
A novel about the Spanish flu would be hard put to avoid grimness, of course, what with all the dying that will have to go on if it's going to be true to the historical event. But grim can be gripping. As does nearly every would-be serious novel hoping for a breakthrough these days, Mullen's book has most of the requisite elements: psychological suspense, villains, victims, a conflicted hero or two, secrets and a mystery. In short, it's a grabber.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
It is the autumn of 1918 and a world war and an influenza epidemic rage outside the isolated utopian logging community of Commonwealth, Wash. In an eerily familiar climate of fear, rumor and patriotic hysteria, the town enacts a strict quarantine, posting guards at the only road into town. A weary soldier approaches the gate on foot and refuses to stop. Shots ring out, setting into motion a sequence of events that will bring the town face-to-face with some of the 20th-century's worst horrors. Mullen's ambitious debut is set against a plausibly sketched background, including events such the Everett Massacre (between vigilantes and the IWW), the political repression that accompanied the U.S. entry into WWI and the rise of the Wobblies. But what Mullen supplies in terms of historical context, he lacks in storytelling; though the novel is set in 1918, it was written in a post 9/11 world where fear of bird flu regularly makes headlines, and the allegory is heavy-handed (the protagonist townie, after all, is named Philip Worthy). The grim fascination of the narrative, however, will keep readers turning the pages. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Set in 1918, with World War I raging in Europe and a deadly flu epidemic spreading to and through America, this is the story of a town that decides to take its fate into its own hands. The committee members of the Washington town of Commonwealth decide to set up an armed outpost to prevent those infected with influenza from getting in. Young guards Graham, a mill worker, and Philip, the 16-year-old adopted son of the mill owner, reluctantly murder a soldier from a local fort who tries to force his way in. A few days later, a second soldier attempts to gain entry. Philip, alone this time, can't shoot the man, and the youth and soldier end up quarantined together. Yet despite the town's precautions, the plague arrives and wreaks graphically depicted havoc. Debut novelist Mullen patiently unfolds the plot, using historical facts as a springboard. His long and absorbing novel is a timely and sobering look back at a nation during a deadly war involving a human enemy far away, a disease at home, fear, and political and cultural forces. Recommended for all collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/06.]-Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta, NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A progressive community buckles under a double whammy: the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and the hatreds stirred by American participation in WWI. Deep in the evergreens north of Seattle, a company town revolves around its timber mill. Owner Charles Worthy founded Commonwealth in 1916, and two years later, the town is thriving. The workers own their homes and set the rules, dispensing with police. After nearby Timber Falls is hit by the flu, a majority of Commonwealth's residents decide to quarantine the town. Armed volunteers guard the one access road. Worthy's adopted son, 16-year-old Philip, is on guard duty with Graham, an older man he regards as a big brother, when a disheveled soldier emerges from the woods and ignores orders to stop. Graham shoots him dead. Some days later, Philip is the lone sentry when a second soldier appears. After a skirmish, Philip and the soldier are detained by another guard, also deemed a possible carrier. Meanwhile, Commonwealth has its first flu death: a Canadian who snuck into Timber Falls for some liquor. The sickness travels with astonishing speed; fear and suspicion infect the town along with the epidemic. As supplies dwindle, the store and community gardens are plundered. Mullen has a good premise for a disaster story, but a fatal weakness for melodrama. Graham kills the imprisoned soldier, believing him to be the original carrier. Philip, back home but now stricken himself, rises from his sickbed to confront Graham, then a delegation of lawmen and goons from Timber Falls forces its way into town to arrest draft-dodgers, including the sick and contagious. Mullen's debut gets mileage out of the gruesome epidemic and contains some interesting historicalnuggets, but it fails to mesh its grim subject matter with convincing individual narratives.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 9.51(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Last Town on Earth

By Thomas Mullen

Random House

Thomas Mullen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400065208

Chapter One

Chapter 1


The road to Commonwealth was long and forbidding, stretching for miles beyond Timber Falls and leading deep into the evergreen woods, where the trees grew taller still as if trying to reach the sun that teased them with the paucity of its rays. Douglas fir loomed over the rock-strewn road like two warring armies perched on opposing cliffs. Even those travelers who all their lives had been reminded of their insignificance felt particularly humbled by that stretch of road and the preternatural darkness that shadowed it.

Some number of miles into the woods, the road curved to the right and the trees backed off a bit, the brown dirt and occasional stumps evidence that the woods had been cleared out only recently, and only with extreme tenacity. The clearing rose along a gradual incline; at the base of the hill, a tree that had recently been chopped down blocked the road. Into its thick bark a sign was nailed: a warning to travelers who didn't exist, a silent cry into deaf woods.

A crisp wind picked up atop the bare hill, carrying the combined exhalations of millions of fir and pine. Philip sucked in his breath.

"Cold?" Graham asked.

"I'm fine."

Graham motioned back to the town. "You need to get yourself a warmer jacket, go ahead."

"I'll stay."

"Suit yourself." Philip did look cold in his thin jacket and khaki pants--pencil-pusher attire--whereas Graham was clad in his usual blue overalls and a thick wool coat.

"Look like it's gonna snow to you?" Philip Worthy was sixteen, tall despite the limp that made people think he was shorter, but not as brawny as most of the men in that town of lumberjacks and millworkers.

"It's not going to snow."

Graham, twenty-five, was what in many ways Philip aspired to be: strong, quietly wise, the man of his house. While Philip felt he needed to be polite and conversational to ingratiate himself with people, Graham seemed to say the minimum necessary and always won respect. Philip had known him for two years, and he still wanted to figure out how a fellow did that.

"Colder'n I thought it'd be," Philip said. "Sometimes that means snow."

Graham understood his companion's dread of snow. He shook his head. "It's cold, but it ain't going to snow. It's October."

Philip nodded, shoulders hunched against the cold.

Graham laid his rifle on the ground, then took off his coat. "Here, put it on."

"No, really, I'll be all right. I don't want you to get--"

"Put the damn coat on." Graham smiled. "I've got more meat on my bones anyway."

"Thanks." Philip placed his rifle beside Graham's. The jacket was big on him, the sleeves extending beyond his hands. He knew he looked foolish, but it was as good as wearing gloves. He wouldn't be able to hold the rifle, but that seemed fine, since he didn't expect he'd need to.

"Who do you think that was in the Model T on Sunday?" Philip asked.

"Don't know." Neither of them had been at the post on Sunday, when two other guards had seen a shiny new Ford drive as far as the fallen tree would allow. The guard post was too far away to get a good look at the driver, who never emerged from his automobile. The fedora told them it was a man, but that was all. The man had apparently read the sign, stopped to think for no longer than a moment, then turned around and driven away. It was the only sighting of an outsider since the town had closed itself off.

Commonwealth sat about fifty miles northeast of Seattle, or maybe a hundred--no one seemed to know except the town's founder, Charles Worthy, and those who transported the town's timber. To the east were the jagged peaks of the Cascades, close enough to be seen on a clear day but far enough to disappear when the clouds were low and thick. On those days, the town seemed to be cut off from the rest of the earth. Miles to the west was the open sea, the confluence of Puget Sound to the south, the Strait of Georgia to the north, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west, the point where all three combined and wrapped their cold embrace around the San Juan Islands. But the sea was just far enough away, blocked by the thick forest, that it might as well not have been there at all.

Commonwealth was no ordinary town, and that helped explain why it appeared on no maps, as if the rest of the civilized world preferred to ignore its existence. It had no mayor, no postmaster, no sheriff. It had no prison, no taxman, no train station, no rail lines. No church, no telephones, no hospital. No saloon, no nickelodeon. Commonwealth had pretty much nothing but a timber mill, homes for the workers, plenty of land from which to tear down more trees, and the few trappings necessary to support the mill, such as a general store and a doctor's office. To shop for items the store didn't sell, to visit the moving pictures, or to attend traditional church services, people went to Timber Falls, fifteen miles to the southwest. But no one from town was allowed to leave anymore, and no one was allowed to come in.

"Think the driver will come back?" Philip asked. The wind blew his thin brown hair across his forehead.

Graham thought for a moment, his face appearing immovable as his blue-green eyes focused on the base of the hill. "No, not after he saw the sign. If it was someone who really wanted to come in, he would've tried. Probably just somebody on mill business who didn't know about the quarantine."

Philip nodded, appreciating Graham's certainty.

Philip had grown up with neither father nor siblings, dragged throughout the West by an itinerant mother until the accident that left him in the Worthys' care. And when his new family had moved to Commonwealth two years ago to start this bold experiment, he had quickly befriended Graham, who hadn't realized how much he'd missed his own younger brothers until he met Philip.

Graham, like many millworkers, had run away from his home too young, chased off by a drunk father with whom he had violently clashed one time too many. He had been about Philip's age when he'd left his home in Kansas, and sometimes when he looked at Philip, he was amazed that he himself had been so headstrong, so foolish, to venture out into the world at such an overwhelmed age. Somehow he had survived, survived bloody strikes and stints in jail and fights with cops, and here he was, a foreman at a respectable mill. Though he had his own family to care for now, he liked teaching Philip the things he'd learned from his older brother, to hunt his first deer, catch his first fish, navigate the trails that cut through the endless forest.

In truth, Graham didn't feel so certain that the man in the automobile wouldn't return, but the mere sound of his own calm voice was reassuring. This was why Graham had missed having younger brothers, he realized--they made you feel almost as strong as the image they looked up to.

Philip and Graham's first stint as guards, four days earlier, had been uneventful. They had stood there for the ten long hours, silent for stretches and chatting when the boredom became too great. Wondering aloud how long the flu would last, swapping stories of past illnesses and ailments. Philip had even proposed a small wager as to how long the quarantine would last, but Graham had lightly chastised him for being indelicate. Philip regretted the comment, felt young and stupid. But other than that the time had passed slowly, the sky gradually darkening, the mists descending from the formless clouds above, leaving the two watchmen damp and tired and longing for their warm homes, where they would have nothing interesting to share with their families over the supper table.

"So how's 'class' coming?" Graham asked, minutes or hours later.

"Class is fine. Ask me anything you'd like to know about interest payments."

"I would like to know nothing at all, thank you very much."

Philip was Charles Worthy's apprentice, being trained in the business side of the mill, bred for the same job that Charles himself had held in his father's mill, the one he had disgustedly turned his back on only two years ago.

"You honestly like sittin' in a chair all day?" Graham asked.

"Wouldn't know what else to compare it to."

Philip wondered if Graham looked down on his desk work, but with his damaged body, Philip was a bad candidate for labor of a more physical nature. He gave a surreptitious glance at Graham's missing finger, the one he'd lost in a mill accident some years ago, and figured his wasn't such a bad lot to draw.

Just the other day, Philip had helped calculate what the mill would save if it switched over from gang saws to band saws, whose thinner blades would mean losing less of the timber to sawdust. It had been challenging work, but when he was finished, he felt he'd contributed something of value to the mill, and his father's soft-spoken compliment was still ringing in his ears.

"How's your little girl doing?" Philip asked.

"She's great," Graham said with a slight smile. "Been crawlin' all over the house lately. Amelia's gotta keep her eyes on her all the time now."

"How long till she talks?"

"A few months yet, at least."

"How long till she chops down trees like her old man?"

"Till hell freezes over."

"I don't know," Philip said, "she's got that lumberjack look to her."

"That lumberjack look? What's that?"

Philip shrugged. "She drools a lot. Burps. Kinda smells sometimes."

Graham nodded, smirking.

"So you get any sleep, or is she still up all night?"

"I sleep when I can."

"Like when you're out here standing guard."

"I was not asleep last time. I was resting my eyes and ignoring you. It's an important skill a man develops after he has a wife and kid. Trust me on this.

"Speaking of which," Graham continued after a brief pause, looking at Philip from the corner of his eye, "I keep seeing you talking with that Metzger girl."

Philip shrugged unconvincingly. "She's my sister's friend."

"So how come I keep seeing you and her and no sister?"

It took an extra second for Philip to come up with a retort. "What, a guy can't talk to a girl?"

Graham smiled. "Boy, I hope you're less obvious with her than you are with me."

Minutes of silence had passed before they saw someone at the base of the hill.

They saw him through the tree trunks first, hints of light brown and tan flashing every other second through that tangle of bark. Each of them stiffened, breath held, as they waited to see if a figure would emerge or if they had imagined it, if it was some trick of light.

The figure turned the corner and looked up the hill, saw the town in the distance. Between him and the town stood Philip and Graham, though he seemed not to notice them.

"You see that, too, right?" Philip asked.

"I see it."

The figure started walking toward them.

"Read the sign," Graham quietly commanded the stranger. "Read the sign."

Indeed, after a couple of seconds, the figure reached the sign and stopped. Stopped for an unusually long time, as if he could barely read and there were one too many big words written there. Then the man looked up at them. Graham made sure his rifle was visible, standing up beside him, his hand under the barrel so that it was pointing away from him.

Philip hadn't looked at the sign in days yet he had memorized what it said.



On Account of the Outbreak of INFLUENZA

This Town Under Strict QUARANTINE.

This Area Under Constant Watch of ARMED Guards.

Neither STRANGER Nor FRIEND May Pass Beyond This Marker.

May God Protect You.

After reading the sign the man had some sort of brief spasm, one of his hands reaching to his face. Then he stepped up to the fallen tree and started climbing over it. It was an impressive tree, and it took him a

moment to ascend its thick trunk. Then he was past it and walking toward them again.

"He's still coming," Philip said helplessly, trying not to panic. He hurriedly rolled up the sleeves of Graham's coat, wondering why he felt fid-gety and nervous when Graham seemed to become even more still than usual.

The man walked with a slight limp, wincing when he moved his right leg. It made his progress slower but somehow more definite. His clothes suggested a uniform of some kind, with stripes on one sleeve. As the man approached, Philip and Graham saw the back end of a rifle poking up over his right shoulder.

He's a soldier, Philip thought, confused.

He was nearly halfway to them. No more than eighty yards away.

"Stop right there!" Graham shouted. "This town is under quarantine! You can't come any closer!"

The man did as he was told. He had dark and uncombed hair that appeared somewhat longer than a typical soldier's. He looked like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days, and there was a piece of cloth tied around his right thigh, colored black from what might have been dried blood. His uniform was dirty all over the legs and was smeared with mud across parts of the chest.

Then the soldier sneezed.

"Please!" The man needed to raise his voice in order to be heard over the distance, but the effort of doing so seemed almost too much for him. "I'm starving. I just need a little something to eat . . .&


Excerpted from The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Last Town on Earth 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book. The whole premise is so interesting...a reverse quarantine on a whole town. I am interested in what the readers feel about the ending... I am still on the fence as to whether it does the book the justice it deserves. GREAT book club reading...there are so many debatable issues.
Nitereader9 More than 1 year ago
I read this novel for my book club without seeing a synopsis first. As I began to read, I thought initially it might be another post-apocalypse novel in the genre of The Stand but as I got further into it I realized it was actually historical in nature and as such was somewhat interesting. However, I felt the author didn't develop his characters deeply enough. I found too many unanswered questions and unexplained actions - especially dealing with Graham. The ending also was very anticlimactic and disappointing. I felt like I was reading a slightly more imaginative textbook than a novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just completed reading this book and found it compelling, especially now with the Ebola scare in our country. As friends, family, and I talk about our feelings and fears concerning Ebola, I am reminded of the feelings and fears of characters in this story. It is not hard to imagine their desperate desire to protect their loved ones, even at the cost of others. This is a timely read, indeed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is so good!!!! It is definately one that is extremely hard to put down. Absolutely love it!!!!!!!
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Eagleknits More than 1 year ago
Although there is enough action to keep the reader interested, this book is mainly a psychological account of how people's attitudes and actions can change when they are confronted with an extraordinary circumstance. It will be most interesting to readers who have some prior knowledge of the 1918 flu epidemic and American society during World War I.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
well written
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TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
The story is about Commonwealth, a small town in the Pacific Northwest that gets hit with the flu during the 1918 epidemic that swept through the nation. In an effort to protect the town, the town folk decide to enact a quarantine. This means that the residents must stay within the town, and no one from outside of the town can come in. At first, this works fine. The town is self-sufficient to a degree. There is plenty of food and other supplies and most of the folks feel that the quarantine is a necessary precaution. But as the flu ravages other towns and there is talk of war spies, the people of Commonwealth realize that they may have to protect their town from more than just the flu. While on guard duty, Philip & Graham encounter a soldier looking for shelter and food. Graham's handling of the situation disturbs Philip and causes him to replay the incident over and over again in his mind. The encounter affects him so deeply, that when he is faced with a similar situation, he makes a decision that puts the entire town at risk. The story was a bit slow for me. It took a good 200 pages for me to get into it but there was something about the writing that kept me going. The depiction of the town itself was spot on. I could easily picture the setting in my mind and the main characters and the situations they faced were well-developed. I had some issues with the development of some of the other characters though. Their demeanor did not match their age, but in a frontier town in the early 1900's, that is to be expected. Young people held more responsibility in those days. Although this story deals with a pandemic it's not like any of the other novels I've read that deal with the same topic. The flu itself takes a backseat to the other themes within the novel which include, fierce loyalty, the will to survive, trust and honor. Not a page-turner but I liked it.
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Tony495 More than 1 year ago
I re-read this in anticipation of Mullen's new book, Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. It was as gripping as the first time I read it. Still very thought-provoking. I'm surprised it hasn't been made into a movie.
WestSong More than 1 year ago
Inspired by reports of remote towns who attempted to escape the Spanish flu during the pandemic of 1918 by sealing themselves off, Mullen has created and peopled a mill town in the Cascade mountains. The tale is highly believable, and reveals some of the tensions and moral dilemmas raised by pandemics-a recurring challenge to the human race. It's also an interesting read, told from the viewpoint of a sensitive boy coming of age. An excellent companion book to this is Geraldine Brooks's "Year of Wonders," about an earlier pandemic: the great plague (bubonic) of 1666. Also inspired by history, it depicts a small English town that also sealed itself off-but in its case, to contain the plague already within its borders, so as to avoid spreading it to others. The two books thus represent moral opposites. I would high recommend either or both for book club reading and discussion.
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grumpydan More than 1 year ago
Take a minor event in American history, add the flu epidemic 0f 1918, WWI, a new mll town in the northwest and you have the makings of a great story. Thomas Mullan has done just that in "The Last Town on Earth". With the flu epidemic wiping out towns across America, the newly formed mill town of Commonwealth has decided to quarantine the town to keep people out so that their residents do not catch the flu. Then a soldier appears at the blockade and is killed. What happens next as Commonwealth struggles with being locked inside its own borders? Mullan has written a fascinating and touching story.
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