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The Last Town on Earth: A Novel Paperback – July 31, 2007

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Editorial Reviews Review

Wow. This stunning book succeeds on so many different levels--as an engrossing story, a character study, a history lesson, a modern day political allegory--I don't even know where to begin the praise. The Last Town on Earth centers on the inhabitants of a small logging town in Washington and what happens when they take drastic measures (quarantine) to try and protect themselves from the virulent and deadly flu epidemic of 1918. When a deserting WWI soldier demands sanctuary, events are set in motion that change the town forever.

Although this is Mullen's first published work, there are none of the usual verbal pyrotechnics or high-wire "look how well I can write" balancing acts one sees with beginning authors. How refreshing to read a younger author who has already progressed beyond his ego and knows that it's all about story, story, story. Mullen tells his tale cleanly, simply and plainly--making the ironies and allegories all the more potent. I knew almost nothing of the flu epidemic of 1918 and even less about the political climate in the US during WW1. These are not subjects I would go out of my way to read about, but Mullen has made them compelling and interesting. In fact, the author's voice has the same level of confidence and maturity that one only finds in writers with decades more experience (I kept thinking of Wallace Stegner and Alice Munro while I was reading)--authors who earn your trust and confidence so early and easily that you completely relax into the writing and the voice. It's already on my Ten Best List; I can't imagine I'll read ten better books this year. It's easily the most impressive and heartfelt book I've read in a long while. --Terry Goodman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; 1st Thus. edition (July 31, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812975928
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812975925
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (157 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,164 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Thomas Mullen is the author of "The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers" and "The Last Town on Earth," which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, a New York Times Editor's Choice, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

95 of 104 people found the following review helpful By B. McEwan VINE VOICE on October 1, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This novel is all about fear and what it does to human beings. For fear of catching the deadly 1918 "Spanish flu" the people of the town of Commonwealth block the road to their town and refuse entry to outsiders. When one wanderer manages to talk his way past a teenage sentry (Philip) who is guarding the road, the townspeople imprison him for fear that he will either infect them with the virus or that he is a German spy. The fact that it is highly unlikely that their town, located in the middle of the Pacific Northwoods, would be a place of interest to a spy doesn't appear to enter their minds. Fear has so distorted their view of reality that they fail to respond rationally to any circumstance that is out of the ordinary.

And there is a great deal about the time in which this novel is set (the fall of 1918) that is not ordinary. The First World War is raging and people are dropping like flies from a viscous influenza that nothing seems to stop or cure. The worst part is the randomness of who gets infected and, once infected, who lives or dies. Young children and the elderly are often spared, while healthy young adults in the prime of life fall ill and die. The characters in this novel are very well drawn and through them author Thomas Mullen shows the many ways that fear leeches away their humanity, making them suspicious even of old friends and loved ones.

A very interesting facet of the plot is that Commonwealth was founded by unionists and socialists as a utopian village where work and wages are shared far more fairly than was the case in most of the Northwest lumber towns. Those who are the informal leaders of the town seem to view themselves as a cut above those who live in neighboring villages, specifically Timber Falls, which is a short distance down the road.
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69 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Jeff W. on September 8, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I am not exactly sure which I found more shocking - the fact that there actually were armed guards protecting the borders of a town from a deadly virus, or that this is only Thomas Mullen's first novel. The Last Town on Earth is easily the most fascinating and intense book I've read this year. The vivid, relentless descriptions of the infection are truly terrifying and they managed to keep me in constant fear throughout. Mullen does an excellent job showing how an entire town could justify something that on the surface, seems fundamentally wrong. How far would you go to protect your family and your own life? Is it worth killing for? Would you be willing to turn your back on your freedom, your country? The Last Town on Earth explores the ramifications of such choices to their inevitably grim conclusions. Wholeheartedly recommended, you will not be disappointed!
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Power on September 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I was amazed to find out this was Mullen's first novel. His writing style could be described as quietly brilliant, the kind of style that, when it's done perfectly, calls no attention to itself, and allows you to just slip seamlessly into the world he has created. Like getting into a really comfy bed with silk sheets, it's just a wonderful experience.

Within the first ten or so pages of chapter one, I was hooked. After I was hooked, the novel hauled me into the boat and beat me with the oar - I was completely under its power. It's the kind of book that makes you forget that you're reading a book. I ripped through it in about three days, and then I went back to re-read it a week later. Ridiculously engaging.

The characters, far from being the usual caricatures you see in so many books, all behave in very real, very believeable ways. Mullen does an incredible job of subtly putting the reader in each character's mind, and you realize that they are all making very honest, difficult decisions about severely morally challenging issues. He ends up, through his characters, indirectly asking the reader, "What would YOU do in this situation?" The characters all behave and make choices, surprisingly, like honest, real people, and not like characters in a novel. This is the sort of thing that is infinitely rewarding about this book, and really places it above and beyond anything else I've read lately. The author has some serious talent, and the world should experience it.

I eagerly await Mullen's next work, and I hope to be reading him for decades to come. You are depriving yourself if you do not read this book. In a word, stellar.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By S. Hammel on March 8, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I was attracted to this novel because I was curious to learn more about the history of the 1918 influenza epidemic. As the author's own afterword points out, I might have been better served reading a non-fiction book on the subject. Certainly it's clear Mullen has done his research on not only the epidemic, but also on the early labor and social movements of the early 20th Century, as well as the anti-war sentiments during World War I, with implicit parallels to the Iraq War. But overall the novel's scope concerning the flu felt rather limited.

I found Mullen's tale more 'highly readable' than page-turning. His prose strains to acheive a literary quality, often feeling overly self-conscious with obscure word choices. The novel constantly switches character points-of-view, which is the most difficult structure to pull off and this results in occassional awkwardness. Oddly, while first filling us in on the backstories of numerous more minor characters, Mullen only teases with hints on how his central character, a 16-year-old orphan named Phillip came to live with his adoptive family. Phillip is a cripple, who is missing one of his feet -- a trait Mullen strangely ignores when it doesn't suit his purpose, at one point Phillip is described getting out of bed without having to secure the boot he needs to walk!
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