In latest ‘Tale,’ a community tries to ward off the killer flu

Commentary
By Tom Rivers
Jan. 24, 2008

Here’s some things I don’t want to think about: a bomb let off in a
school, poison dumped into a water plant or sprayed onto a field of
vegetables, a huge hazardous spill on a road, jetliners flown into
skyscrapers. Or this: a lethal virus that spreads like the common cold.
This new mutant germ has free rein because pharmaceutical companies
haven’t developed the right medicine to kill off the bug.

These are all horror stories that I wish were farfetched. But we all
should know better. Just pay slight attention to the news.

Yet, I give these Armageddon scenarios little thought and worry. I know
they could happen, but like most Americans, I’d rather watch a movie,
take a nap, do the dishes, play Yahtzee.

But that lackadaisical approach wasn’t an option 90 years ago when
influenza was roaring through small towns and cities, leaving a
decimated population in its wake.

I just finished reading about it in The Last Town on Earth, the latest
community reading project in A Tale for Three Counties. Libraries in
Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties will be leading discussion groups
about the book in the coming six weeks or so. The book’s author, Thomas
Mullen, will be in town March 13-15.

To give you a synopsis of the book: A remote logging town in Washington
state seals its borders, not allowing anyone in or out, because town
leaders fear the virus will enter their town and go on a killing spree.

Preferring to be safe rather than sorry, the town, despite a mild
protest from a few residents, quarantines itself.

That may have seemed smart in theory, but what happens when two starving
soldiers stumble upon the town’s edge? Should guards shoot these
downtrodden guys? Turning them away for a 15-mile walk through the
frozen forest would be a death sentence. But should they be gunned down
if they insist on staying and possibly infecting the town with the flu?

And what happens if this quarantine, pitched as a two-week plan, drags
on and the general store runs out of supplies and the town starts going
hungry? What happens if a few residents sneak out of Commonwealth, go to
a neighboring town for groceries or alcohol, and in turn bring the flu back?

The town faces awful dilemmas, constantly.

It’s a cruel fate for the residents and the town’s founder, Charles
Worthy. He tries desperately to do the right thing. He creates the
lumber community, breaking away from his family’s business because he
opposes his brothers’ and father’s mistreatment of workers.

Worthy offers his workers free houses and generous pay. He insists on
better working conditions. He offers an equal stake in the town. He
wants to prove to his brothers and his competitors that the new mill,
with its well-paid workers, could be a success.

Worthy and his crew prove the doubters wrong. The town grows to 500
people. They coexist peacefully, until the quarantine fails to keep out
the flu.

Worthy’s noble experiment, despite his best intentions, was doomed.
Families, despite their best intentions, were ruined by the fast-moving
virus.

It all seemed so unfair, especially for a community that was determined
to work hard and do good.

In the end, we see the senselessness of tragedy: It strikes some and
passes by others, indiscriminant.

This book, like real life, will scare you, anger you, and make you want
to change the subject.

Tom Rivers is a general assigment reporter who also writes columns,
which are published aternate Thursdays.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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