Deconstructing Commonwealth

March 22, 2008
Lifestyles, The (Batavia, N.Y.) Daily News,
By Ben Beagle

BATAVIA – All three winning entries in Genesee Community College’s “A Tale for Three Counties” essay contest chose to address the same questions: Is Commonwealth a Utopia, and can such an ideal exist?
The 250-word essays were based on Thomas Mullen’s debut novel “The Last Town on Earth,” this year’s selected title in the just completed “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.
The novel, set in 1918, reveals what happens when a mill town – created by a founder with a utopian vision – enacts a quarantine in an effort to avoid a virulent strain of flu that is killing millions worldwide. The focal point of the story is how two characters, Philip and Graham, respond to two strangers in need of food and shelter who approach their guard post.
The fictional story references many historical events such as World War I, the Everett Massacre, a clash between local authorities an members of the Industrial Workers of the World union, or “Wobblies”; and “slacker raids,” in which members of the American Protective League sought to round up draft dodgers.

Prize includes lunch
The winning essays took on the question “How does the town of Commonwealth represent an Utopian community and can one genuinely create an Utopian community?” Students could also choose to explain if they would have responded to the crisis more like Philip or Graham.
First-place went to D. Benjamin Start of Honoeye Falls, a business major. Second place went to Michael Levandowski a liberal arts major from Albion. An honorable mention was awarded to Akiko Kishino.
Start and Levandowski attended a reception with Mullen on March 13. Kishino was unable to attend.
Start said he was most interested in the political elements of the novel. Levandowski said the essay “made me analyze a book that I otherwise wouldn’t think so deeply about.”
Levandowski, in his essay, said Commonwealth was an excellent example of a utopian society “until the town fell on hard times and had its ideals put to the test.”
In the beginning of the story, Levandowski notes, that Commonwealth has no crime, no police and the mill workers are provided with free housing. Mill owner Charles Worthy does not take advantage of his workers and lives a relatively meager life.
To protect the town, Worthy suggests a quarantine to avoid the Spanish flu that is ravaging the surrounding countryside.
But as the quarantine progresses, two strangers in need of food and shelter are turned away and killed, food from the community garden is stolen, and so, too are supplies from the general store. Later, it is learned, some resident secretly left Commonwealth for other, infected villages, to satisfy some needs.
“Ultimately,” Levandowski writes, “the selfish actions of some of the residence doomed the rest of the town, finally destroying the remainder of the utopian feel.”

Chapter 4 for GCC
Tale, which just completed its sixth year and fourth at GCC, encourages readers in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties to pick up the same book, read it and discuss it, and then meet the author when he visits for a series of talks and booksignings. This year’s Tale wrapped last weekend.
The project is organized by the 20 public libraries in the three counties and Genesee Community College.
GCC, which has been part of Tale since the 2005 selection (“In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia Spencer-Fleming), hosts book discussions for both the college community and general public, and organizes an annual essay contest among the student body. The college hosted five Tale book discussions this year, including one by the GCC Reader’s Group which read “The Last Town on Earth” as its March selection and opened its discussion to non-members.
Students are able to receive free copies of the book in exchange for agreeing to participate in the project.
Six professors used the book in a total of 11 classes, the most in the three years GCC has participated in Tale, according to reading instructor Sue Chiddy, who serves as a liaison between the college and the Tale for Three Counties Council, which organizes the program.
In addition to six reading classes, the book was used in three history classes, an English class and the Honors program.
Students in the Honors Seminar read a novel each year, and Mullen’s novel was deemed a good fit for the program’s current theme, “Gold, Gods and Glory: The Global Dynamics of Power.” The availability of book discussions and author visits helped students understand the novel and be able to share with others their thoughts on the novel, said Karen Taylor, associate dean of Genesee Community College at Lakeville.
“And we just thought it would be nice to have them join in a college and community event,” she said.
Taylor, who with Patty Schwartz coordinates the honors program, said students participated in an online discussion board where they were required to respond once to the reading of the novel and to a classmate’s response. The book was divided into two sections with students required to respond at least twice each time.
“We have found their discussions to cover everything from the setting, to the characters, to the flu epidemic and its parallel to today’s possible epidemics,” said Taylor.
Chiddy said some of her students “actually read ahead of assignments because they were so engrossed in the story.”
“One student, an international student, commented that The Last Town on Earth is the first English novel that she has read and even though it was slow reading for her she liked the novel and learned about American history,” Chiddy said.

The winning essays from Genesee Community College’s “A Tale for Three Counties” contest are expected to be printed in the April edition of The New Courier, the student newspaper.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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