March 17, 2008
By Ben Beagle
PERRY – For most, 1918 seems such a long time ago.
But as readers of this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” book selection learned during author Thomas Mullen’s recent visits, the more things change, the more they don’t.
Many readers drew comparisons between the actions and opinions of characters in Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth and events of today. In the novel, a town quarantines itself for fear of a virulent strain of flu that is killing millions worldwide. At the same time, America is fighting a controversial war overseas.
“I don’t think he wrote it to be a political book, but reading it I thought this was very interesting because of all these parallels between 1918 and what we’re going through now,” Pam White of Nunda said Saturday afternoon after hearing Mullen speak during the final Tale event in Perry.
Mullen explained that he was struck by the similarities of human nature, and wanted to explore how people respond to a threatening situation.
“Reaction may have been very different if this was the 1980s. Or if the book came out in ’71, they might be comparing it to the Vietnam War,” he said. “There always seems to be something happening that can relate to these issues.”
About 70 people attended the talk and book signing at Perry Elementary/Middle School, a program organized by the libraries of Wyoming County.
The 6-year-old Tale program is a community reading project that encourages people to read the same book, discuss it and then meet the author. About 350 people attended author programs in Batavia, Medina and Perry that began Thursday and ended Saturday.
At each appearance Mullen talked a little bit about what inspired the novel, shared some history of the period, and read a selection from his book. Much was also revealed during lengthy question-and-answer sessions with the audience.
“It was like every seed he planted turned into a tree. I liked his take on the story, and thought he had a lot of empathetic characters,” said Jacquie Billings of Perry, who also liked how Mullen found inspiration in an article about AIDS research. “I really think that puts perspective on today about the events in the novel. I think there are a lot of things in the novel that we are still concerned about.”
Helen Hudson of Castile said she was very impressed with the breadth of Mullen’s research.
“When I first saw him, I thought he was so young,” she said, “but very early he showed how intelligent he was. I could easily see him being a very successful writer.”
This was the first time that Mullen, 33, had participated in a community reading program.
“I thought it was great that so many people were interested and took part,” Mullen said after signing his last book, his voice scratchy following three days of talks, book signings and receptions. “It’s nice to see that people are reading, and that they’re taking reading seriously and engaging in the book.”
Some readers found the book a way to fill in missing parts of their family history. During his visits, several people shared stories about an aunt or great-grandmother who had died from the flu in 1918, and how they knew little about the circumstances because the family did not talk about it.
While Mullen’s work was fiction, he explained in detail the amount of research that went into discovering what was happening in the country at the time. Fear of the flu prompted some healthy towns to enact quarantines, and a government propaganda campaign designed to rally support for the war also created a culture of fear and suspicion among neighbors.
“Most of the (past Tale selections) seemed to focus on family, or something going on that was about the characters. But this one really got into broader issues,” said Jody Duggan-Lay of Pavilion, who is part of a Livingston County book group that has read each of the Tale titles, and discussed Last Town on Earth on Friday.
Mullen spent about 25 minutes recounting how he got the idea for his debut novel from a small part of a magazine article, then he shared some of what he found to be the interesting parts of America’s history of the period. He then read from chapter 11 of The Last Town on Earth, which showed the effects of the flu on the neighboring town of Timber Falls and the family of a prominent banker.
“When you get to 1918 in the history textbooks, they jump across the ocean and teach about the war,” Mullen said.
Some people, he said, thought the only reason President Wilson changed his mind and asked Congress for a declaration of war was because of pressure from U.S. banks that were losing a lot of money in Britain and France.
“They said, ‘This is J.P. Morgan’s war,'” Mullen said, referencing the prominent financier.
Readers, as they did at previous talks, spent about 45 minutes questioning Mullen about getting published for the first time, his writing process and how he went about assembling The Last Town on Earth.
After a period of research, he said, he began writing even though he knew more research would be needed. “But I needed to see if I could pull it off,” he said. “I wrote a few chapters, then read some more and continued writing.”
It was during a second wave of research that Mullen discovered the American Protective League, and changed his ending from an original scene between Philip and Graham, the two town guards who provide the focal point of the story. Mullen learned about “Slacker Raids,” where government agents and members of the APL would round up men accused of avoiding the draft.
“I thought that was very interesting, and it underscored themes that I was already working with,” Mullen said. “The slacker raid became a very dramatic scene. And I think it was a better ending then it would have been otherwise.”
Still, the ending of The Last Town on Earth left many readers wondering what happened in the rest of Philip’s life. It’s a question Mullen faced at each event.
“I’m glad people are curious about what happens next and aren’t just throwing the book in the garbage,” said Mullen, who is working on a new book, but has not planned to write a sequel to this one. “I personally like that the ending is not too closed. I wanted to leave some things hanging.”
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation