Title: The Last Town on Earth
Author: Thomas Mullen
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Random House
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Audiobook reader: Henry Strozier
Source: Audiobook from the public library
First line: 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.
Paranoia makes people do strange, sometimes terrible, things. The Last Town on Earth is an atmospheric historical novel that resonates with paranoia. The various characters all have reason to distrust others. There is the animosity between mill owners and union members. People protesting World War I are seen as anti-American by the men and women whose sons are dying on the battlefields in France in Belgium. Men who enlist as conscientious objectors are seen as “yellow” and persecuted – even tortured – by their fellow enlisted men. These are the way things were in 1918 in Western Washington State. And into the midst of all this paranoia, the Great Influenza emerged.
Charles Worthy started the mill-town of Commonwealth, Washington, as an alternative to the strife that existed between mill owners and laborers. He promised his men higher wages, well-built homes, and a share in the profits, firmly believing that treating his workers with respect will result in a well-run mill that will be profitable. When the Spanish flu begins spreading throughout the neighboring towns, Worthy approaches his town council with a proposal to quarantine the town – not to keep the flu in, but to keep it out. The men of the town agree, and they block the road coming into Commonwealth with a felled tree and post a sign and guards to keep people out.
Charles’s adopted seventeen-year-old son Philip is on guard duty with his friend Graham when a starving, wounded man in a soldier’s uniform shows up at the outskirts of town, asking for food and shelter from the cold. Graham refuses him, and the following events will shape the rest of the novel.
I listened to The Last Town on Earth on audiobook, read by the wonderful Henry Strozier, who also read North River by Pete Hamill. (You can see Mr. Strozier in this Ocean Spray cranberry juice commercial.) Author Thomas Mullen has crafted a book that aptly demonstrates what paranoia and fear can do to a person, how we will do something we would never otherwise consider if we believe we are doing it to protect our family. This book has such a sense of foreboding; you know that it can’t end well, and yet you can’t look away.
We follow the story through various character’s eyes, but mostly through the viewpoint of young Philip Worthy, who simply wants to do the right thing and make his father, Charles, proud. The choices made by the people around him, and then by Philip himself, all make sense to the people making them, but to the reader, looking in from the outside, they are devastatingly wrong. While I wouldn’t call this a hopeful novel, it is brilliantly written and gives a vividly painted picture of the issues swirling around the minds of Americans in 1918.