The Last Town on Earth: A Novel by Thomas Mullen (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006. 432 pp)
Born in Rhode Island, Thomas Mullen graduated from Oberlin College. His first novel, The Last Town on Earth received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction, Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune best book of the year. Mullen currently resides in Atlanta with his wife and two sons.
Having thoroughly enjoyed The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, I decided to take a stab at Mullen’s debut novel, The Last Town on Earth. Set in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, a small town named Commonwealth quarantines itself in an attempt to avoid the flu epidemic of 1918. With guards posted, the unique and semi-socialist settlement believes that families and jobs will safely continue as the outside world suffers from World War I and the Spanish flu.
Being a Pacific Northwest native, I always have suspicions about using my region as a setting. My knowledge of the area allows me to criticize flawed descriptions of Western Washington. For example, I am thoroughly bothered by the song, “Hello Seattle” by Owl City because the lyrics contain a baffling line about manatees swimming in the Puget Sound. In case you were wondering, manatees live in warm waters near the equator. Mullen, however, finished his homework. His description of Washington State and the small logging towns in the Cascades is remarkably accurate and illustrative.
While the narrative in the Last Town on Earth carefully builds, I particularly gained interest in Mullen’s depiction of early twentieth century labor strife and counter-cultural communities attempting to create flourishing lifestyles for all town members.
Considering the treatment of employees in our modern times, many workers discover small injustices in policy implementation by management. Yet these injustices and oversights pale in comparison to the volatile scenes merely a century before in Everett, Washington. Known as the "Everett Massacre" (massacre is a slight misnomer since only 7 people died officially), a workers union known as the “Wobblies” had a violent confrontation with local authorities. In placing a main character in this discordant event, Mullen brings this historical footnote to life. It is of crucial importance that we remember the lengths workers took in order to ensure the rights that workers now enjoy.
The Last Town on Earth not only details early labor disputes in the Pacific Northwest, it also explores the progressive communities that sprouted up throughout the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s. Home to the protagonists in the story, the settlement of Commonwealth contains a timber mill owned by Charles Worthy, a visionary convinced that a business can be successful when workers are paid a fair wage and treated like human beings. His wife, Rebecca, teaches the town’s children in the lone school and participates both in anti-war rallies and suffragist movements. Given the historical setting of World War I and the Spanish Flu, Commonwealth’s neighbors see the town as enemies on a physical and philosophical level. Nevertheless, Mullen depicts the ideals of Commonwealth in the utmost positive light as they battle the exterior pressures of the world when he writes:
“But as they walked in silence, they came to the same strange realization: the closed-off town of Commonwealth was precisely this place. There was no war, no pestilence. People around the globe were dying, dying from flu and pneumonia and aerial bombings and bayonets, but in Commonwealth, the last town on earth, people were safe. This was the place to run to, and they were already here. All they could do was wait” (p. 42).
While slow in parts, the Last Town on Earth investigates the heart of a particular historical context. Understanding the regional history that Mullen depicts, I am sufficiently impressed at Mullen’s attention to detail. The book is both thought-provoking and entertaining; Mullen’s writing style is erudite and clear. I highly recommend this book.