March 12, 2008
Lifestyles, The Daily News,
By Ben Beagle
Readers are introduced to Thomas Mullen’s 2006 novel The Last Town on Earth through the eyes of an anonymous doctor and two nurses. They are making the rounds in Timber Falls, checking on victims of the flu. It is 1918 and a particularly virulent strain of flu is decimating communities across the country.
In one home, where “neighbors had reported unnerving sounds,” the doctor enters a bedroom where he hears coughing. Inside are two beds.
“Intermittent coughs came from the figure on the right, whose head rested on a pillow stained a dark red,” Mullen writes. “The earlobes, nostrils, and upper lip were blackened with dried blood; the eyes were shut and the lids were a dark blue, as was the skin around them.”
Mullen’s grim prologue provides a disturbing picture of the ravages of the flu, which in 1918 killed millions worldwide and helps move forward the main plot of The Last Town on Earth.
“His words painted a picture for me so that I could see everything that was happening,” says Linda Daviau of Batavia, “even if I didn’t always like seeing it.”
The 1918 influenza outbreak – and how people react to the fears the flu provokes – is the focus of The Last Town on Earth, this year’s selection in the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.
Started six years ago, Tale is designed to encourage people to read the same book and discuss the issues it raises. The current program culminates this week with talks and book signings with the author.
The Last Town on Earth is a fictional story inspired by a little-known footnote to American history. During the 1918 pandemic, some healthy towns actually enacted quarantines in an effort to keep the flu out.
Mullen’s story, which takes place at the height of the flu epidemic, finds the small mill town of Commonwealth enacting such a quarantine.
When a desperate stranger is shot and killed and another hidden to keep them from possibly contaminating the town, people’s behavior changes. They become suspicious of others. They question loyalties. And they do not act in the idealized way that might be expected from a community conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation.
“I don’t think you can isolate life from happening. Life is what it is,” said Leatha Taber of Albion. “Life isn’t always going to be wonderful.”
At book discussions, including one last week at Woodward Memorial Library in Le Roy, readers often wondered what they would have done if they were guarding the town.
“At first, everyone agreed that they would have tried to help the soldier from afar and not shoot him,” says Sue Border, director of Woodward Library. “But as we discussed what would have happened if he wasn’t willing to stop and … continued to walk towards the town, people’s reactions varied. A few said in order to protect their families they may have stopped the intruder.”
Readers say the subject matter – particularly Mullen’s dramatic descriptions – made for a book that was, at times, hard for them to read.
“After reading a few pages of this book, I put it down. I didn’t like it,” says Tally Almquist of Bergen, who was among several readers who say they went back and finished the book, and came away with a greater appreciation of the story and time period.
Upon later reading, Almquist said she “became more and more interested in it until at the last I had trouble putting it down.”
Joyce Thompson-Hovey of Pavilion says the descriptions helped transport the reader into the very lives and emotions of the characters, but at the same time “the vivid manner in which he delves into their experiences took me beyond my comfort level.”
“My first reaction was that this is not the type of book I was going to enjoy,” says Thompson-Hovey, who often reads historical fiction novels. “However, there was something that drew me to continue to read on and I am very glad I did Š I found Philip’s experiences set against the various reactions of Americans to the flu epidemic and the conflict that arose a most interesting read.”
Julie Caton of Oakfield first picked up the book while she herself was sick, and “Mullen’s palpable descriptions of the flu only made me feel worse so I put the book down.”
She revisited the book a few weeks later. “Š After the second reading I felt ‘wonderful and horrible’ like Philip after his ordeal,” she says. “I understood how my own suffering influenced my thinking.”
Tale organizers acknowledge that the book’s details, and especially the prologue, may have troubled readers.
“The prologue creates strong reactions in readers, and it seems like it is either extreme interest of extreme fear in what is to follow,” says Leslie DeLooze, the reference and community services librarian at Batavia’s Richmond Memorial Library, who has spearheaded the Tale project since its 2003 inception.
In the opening pages, readers don’t know any of the names of the sick people or of the doctor and nurses who tend to them. “It hasn’t been brought to the personal level at this point,” DeLooze said. “The prologue sets the scene for the book, letting us know what the characters in the town of Commonwealth will probably face, and why they are so afraid.”
Thomas Mullen, whose debut novel The Last Town on Earth is this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” book selection, makes two stops in Batavia on Thursday, followed by programs in Medina and Perry. His schedule:
THURSDAY: Talks and book signings at 1 p.m. in Room T102 of the Conable Technology Building at Genesee Community College, 1 College Rd.; and 7 p.m. at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St.
FRIDAY: Talk and book signing at 7 p.m. Friday at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, 620 West Ave., Medina.
He is also scheduled to do a Friday morning interview with Lisa Scott of WIVB-TV, channel 4 in Buffalo, and meet winners of The Daily News sponsored book review contest for a lunch-time discussion at D&R Depot in Le Roy.
SATURDAY: Talk and book signing at 2 p.m. in the auditorium at Perry Elementary-Middle School, 50 Olin Ave., Perry, a program hosted by Perry Public Library.
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation