1918 was a dismal year: unresolved labour disputes simmered as the First World War limped to an end, its armies decimated by the flu pandemic. Set in Washington's gloomy forests the autumn of that year, Thomas Mullen's novel pulls these depressing events together.
"The Last Town on Earth" is Mullen's first published novel. It won a prize for Best Historical Novel in 2007, a spectacular achievement for a new author. The edition reviewed here is the paperback reprint from Random House, £5.99 new from Amazon. This edition has a different cover from the one pictured above; it's an image of a hunched figure walking away in the snow. The book contains extras such as an interview with the author and some background.
The novel itself is 398 pages.
* The plot
100 years ago in America, labour movements rose in protest against dangerous working conditions and starvation pay. Their strikes and demonstrations met with heavy-handed resistance, leading several idealists to set up industrial communes.
These towns, mostly situated on cheap and isolated land, attracted settlers not only from the labour movements but also drifters, runaways and those living on the edge of the law. Anyone was welcome, as long as they pulled their weight for the community.
Thomas Mullen invents one such town: Commonwealth, built around a lumber mill deep in the forests of Washington. The community is successful and problem-free so, when a virulent strain of influenza starts killing citizens in the next nearest town, Commonwealth votes to keep its residents healthy by barring all visitors. The only road into Commonwealth is blockaded and the men take turns to stand sentry.
The main part of this story is told from the point of view of Philip, the 16-year-old adopted son of Commonwealth's founders. One evening, Philip is on guard duty with his best friend, Graham, when a lone soldier approaches on foot. The stranger seems unwell. Graham shoots him.
Commonwealth's leading figures decide to keep the soldier's death secret from the other residents. Although well-intended, their decision disrupts the open principles upon which the town has prospered: subtly at first, and then with increasing force. Deception and suspicion work their way into the fabric of Commonwealth's community. When another soldier appears, the scene is already set for turmoil to infest the town.
The story's threads reach a violent climax together. Then, with Commonwealth's community all but destroyed ... it just stops. We are told of the leading characters' future intentions, but no issues are resolved. The novel's end looks bleakly towards new beginnings.
* A good choice for a book club.
"The Last Town on Earth" prompts several intriguing moral questions:
What would you have done? Is it ever right to kill? Is a draft dodger a criminal? Can idealism work? Is isolation ever a good idea?
Mullen provides his characters with well-researched backstories, which help us understand the mood of the times. This could lead to discussions around socialism, pacifism, policing and even medical science.
* A cheerless read.
There's little joy in this novel. It's a tale of difficulty in hard times, and of human weakness. No character is especially brave or good, and none is particularly likeable. The story's despondent finish offers the reader no uplift. Not a good choice for the sick room!
* Critical acclaim.
This book received rave reviews. The story moves fast, there is plenty of action and Mullen has carried out interesting research into forgotten issues of the day. The book was published at the time of the bird-flu scare, which gave it contemporary relevance.
* My opinion.
It never felt 'real' to me, despite the fact that it's based on actual events.
I found Commonwealth ridiculous to begin with. They guard the road but the town is surrounded by forest trails. They don't lay in extra provisions beforehand, neither do they plan for medical assistance. Mullen makes this rag-bag community sound like 'Little House on the Prairie'; their dumb innocence evidently shared by the intruders, who conveniently walk up the road to town instead of approaching through the woods.
Although the characters are described in detail and weighed down with personal history, they remain stolidly two-dimensional. I didn't much care about any of them. This wasn't helped by self-conscious dialogue and annoying storytelling slips (for example, Philip limps and cannot walk without his wooden boot, but manages to creep silently across an empty room).
There's some beautiful prose: "skin the colour of stones at the bottom of a river" and good action: the only passages that held my attention were the fights. For me, this wasn't enough to make up for Mullen's disconnected style.
(review also published on helium.com under my own name)