March 8, 2008
By Ben Beagle
Readers may be surprised to know that Thomas Mullen, who sets his debut novel, The Last Town on Earth, in the dense forests of Washington state, has always been an East Coaster.
Born in Providence, R.I., he grew up in nearby suburban Barrington. He graduated from Oberlin College and has lived in Boston, Chapel Hill, N.C., and Washington, D.C.
Mullen did consider setting The Last Town on Earth closer to home. But during the story’s time period, New England was already so thickly settled, it would have been difficult to imagine a town so sufficiently isolated they could do what Commonwealth did, he said.
The Washington state of the era, where Commonwealth is “located” east of Seattle, was still very much a frontier at the time. And the state, at the time the novel is set, was experiencing strikes and armed conflicts in the logging and mining industries, which would fit well with the themes and ideas being explored in The Last Town on Earth.
The original article that inspired the novel suggested towns that most often enacted quarantines were in the Pacific Northwest or Rocky Mountains. Mullen had a brother going to school in Washington and had spent time in the Cascade Mountains.
“I was struck by how beautiful it is, but also how there’s a sort of undeniable forbiddingness to the geography there,” Mullen said. “We like to think of the woods as sort of a playground where we go to hike or hunt or fish. But when you look through the eyes of somebody in 1918 who is trying to ekes out a living it’s very different. You can’t help but feel that way when you’re in that part of the country, I think. Because it is beautiful, but it is so impressive and intimidating and to imagine what it must have been like in 1918, it lent this kind of forbidding atmosphere that I thought went well with this sense of being surrounded by this.”
The Last Town on Earth was published in August 2006, making several best book lists and being named the year’s best debut novel by USA Today. It also received the 2007 James Fenimore Cooper Prize, which recognizes a book of historical fiction on an American subject which makes a significant contribution to understanding history or authentically portrays people and events of the past.
The award’s four college history professor jurors noted the novel “gives readers a sense of place and meaning. Altogether it is a remarkable achievement for an author, let alone a first novel.”
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation