Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth opens 1918 in Washington state as the Spanish flu outbreak begins. Historical fiction, the novel imagines the lives of the citizens in the fictious Commonwealth after the town votes to ‘reverse’ quarantine: as no one in the town is yet sick, they vote to forbid entry or exit from the town and post guards to ensure the quarantine is followed. It closely follows the Worthy family, the patriarch of whom, Charles, is the mill owner and unelected leader of the town; the (adopted) son, Philip, is our protagonist.
The novel is a masterful weaving of the complex issues of the time. Far from being ‘about the flu,’ the novel explores the upheavals of the time through this hotpot moment. I’m so excited by all that the novel explores I’ve made this handy bulleted list:
- Changes in medical practices: the town’s doctor was trained in the 1880s, when medical schools taught blood letting; the doctor has learned about bacteria, but has only a rudimentary understanding of contagion. His incomplete understanding of the incubation period of disease and the ways it spreads have consequences for both the spread of the disease (obvs), but the plot as at different points characters are blamed or absolved for actions based on what the doctor did or didn’t (or should) have known. Add the overwhelming fear of the townspeople to the spread of a disease they can’t see and don’t understand.
- Class and union organization: Charles used to be a mill owner in a town that violently suppressed union organization. Disgusted with the treatment of workers he buys land and establishes Commonwealth as a town where all workers will be treated as equals with owners, pays the workers fairly and provides them with housing and education. The novel explodes the idea of a workers paradise, by exposing the fault lines between owner and worker and the political/religious/social views that accompany such an economic position (significantly the likelihood of these workers supporting the war effort). Nothing in this novel is simple or reductive.
- Changes in gender expectations and first wave feminism: Rebecca’s husband is Charles, and her adopted son is Philip. She’s a first wave feminist of the more straightforward kind: letter writer, suffragette, union organizer, pacifist. Through Rebecca we’re reminded on the enormous changes in expectations for women underway in the period, and the herculean effort of women working together to achieve equity in the political and social arenas. She’s mirrored in the feisty Elise, the love interest of Philip, who Philip adores. Elise complicates the portrait in that she questions the need for political agitation as a means of achieving equity; rather arguing for relationships and community (in isolation). And then further nuanced in the portrait of Philip’s birth parents: a father who abandons him, a mother who traipses about the countryside as a sex worker before [spoiler]. These differing representations do more than unsettle a simplistic idea of first wave feminism, they also trouble ideas of familial structure and trust, and the bonds that are necessary in times of legitimate crisis to bring people together.
- Political/military change: Of course the Spanish flu broke out in the last year of World War One, and the United States has just entered the war. The novel tackles the War in some of its most climactic scenes through questions of loyalty to nation, bravery of men, honour, duty, etc. But it also explores the political necessities of the war, the reluctant entrance of the United States and the continued ambivalence of the nation to its role in the War, in particular because of the heterogenous ethnic and racial makeup of the country.
- Religion: Selfish observation, but Commonwealth has a Unitarian minister. My first experience recognizing my ‘faith’ in narrative. The lack of faith of the town (many have lapsed attendance at church, or ambivalence about attending) is interesting insofar as God is not interpreted as the cause of the contagion, nor its cure. Rather the townspeople are fixated on human actors for the source of the disease, and on human behaviour for its spread and containment. One character, Deacon (named for his once enrollment in a seminar), experiences something of a religious conversion through his encounter with the flu (again, nothing in the novel is simple), but ends the novel again questioning his faith.
So okay. All the interesting content pieces stipulated, I haven’t even touched on the formal pieces that make the book so great. I can already see this is going to be a long post. Whatever. If you’re still reading… read on. I’ll spare you the bulleted list this time. Maybe.
I was most struck by the narration and the way it works to establish (and undercut) the reliability of characters. The novel uses third person multiple, allowing us to follow and focus on particular characters throughout. We spend most of our time with Philip, but occasional chapters are narrated from outside Commonwealth, and from others within Commonwealth (the doctor, Rebecca, Charles, and Elise). Notably absent is the point of view of Graham. Backtrack. Graham is a surrogate big brother for Philip. Idolized by Philip, Graham stands as exemplar masculinity: family man who does his duty (of course ‘duty,’ is routinely questioned and complicated in the novel) to protect the town and its ideals. We know that Graham is good because Philip believes he is good. Despite repeated examples of Graham’s failures to live up to an accepted standard of good behaviour, this reader continued to believe in Graham’s goodness because Philip believed it. I can’t recall encountering this type of unreliable narrator before (surely I have and just can’t remember?) where it’s not that I distrust my protagonist, but rather I distrust his representation of Graham, his inability to see Graham’s flaws and faults. By denying us the point of view of Graham, the novel asks the reader to question the motivations and valorization of those we routinely hold up as shining examples of goodness in our society.
Which takes us to the import in the present of this novel set in the past. Of course there are some immediate connections: the desire to ‘protect’ the ‘civilized’ (and safe) society from (perceived) outward threats by limiting immigration or building walls or preventing free movement; the call to challenge state authorities when their dictums are counter to reason or morality; the base desire to protect the self and your immediate connections (and the inability to think globally, or even beyond the family); the need for radical redistribution of wealth; and the dangers of blind adherence to a Cause (remembering the book is so smart at showing the dangers of the nationalist Cause of the war, as well as the radical Cause of a communal ‘commonwealth.’).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t (at last) add that the plot here is propulsive. It’s immediately absorbing and brilliantly paced. Also how mad it makes me that this is Mullen’s first novel.
If you teach literature or take part in a book club I’d make this a strong contender for a class read: there’s just so much happening to think about (and fancy that, the edition I read included ‘discussion prompts’). And if you’re still populating your beach reads list, you could do far worse than this one.