March 4, 2008
By Ben Beagle
Linda Daviau has heard family stories about the 1918 influenza. She’s even watched a PBS documentary and found herself fascinated by the subject.
Now, the Batavia woman wants to ask author Thomas Mullen about the history he tells of the flu outbreak and Americans’ attitudes about World War I as recounted in his historical fiction novel The Last Town on Earth.
The novel, set in the fictional Pacific Northwest town of Commonwealth as the war was winding down in 1918, is this year’s book in the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.
“I just wonder how accurate an accounting of history his story is. There was so much fear, and that anger from (neighboring town) Timber Falls,” she said. “It amazed me, I had never heard a lot about that aspect of World War I.”
She’ll get the chance – along with five other winners of this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” book review contest – to ask Mullen about his story during a lunch-time discussion with the author. Other contest winners are Ann Burlingham of Perry, Kathy Gleason of Holley, Meghan Hauser of Perry, Leatha M. Taber of Albion and Joyce Thompson-Hovey of Pavilion.
They will gather March 14 at D&R Depot, 63 Lake St., Le Roy. The invitation-only discussion is the prize for winning the contest, which saw a record-tying 16 entries this year (equaling the number submitted in 2006 for Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light).
The contest asked readers to react to the overall book, a theme or character. Entries were judged by the Tale for Three Counties Council, the group of librarians that organizes the Tale community reading project.
Many readers who entered the contest said they found the contest helped them to focus on events in the book.
“As I was reading, I was kind of searching for ‘a-ha’ moments, something that would strike a chord,” Gleason said. In her review, she said she “was caught up in the overall human response to tragedy exhibited by the inhabitants of Commonwealth” who let time take them through whatever closure awaited their various conflicts.
The Last Town on Earth was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Excellence in Historical Fiction by the Society of American Historians. Mullen’s novel explores what happens when a small town enacts a quarantine in an attempt to prevent a flu outbreak. When two guards find themselves unprepared when confronted by a stranger seeking food and shelter, their actions raise questions of morality, patriotism and individual needs versus those of society.
Hauser, in her review, said the book’s “explosive start Š serves both to draw the reader in and to ignite the unraveling of the fictional town of Commonwealth.”
“As a reader living in a small town, I reacted strongly to the situations posed in the story,” Hauser wrote. “It was far too easy to imagine current situations that could turn neighbor against neighbor … Mullen speaks directly to his modern readers, warning us just how close we all are to breakdown and chaos.”
Thompson-Hovey acknowledged her initial uncertainty about the book even as its graphic descriptions “transport the reader into the very lives and emotions” of the characters.
“The vivid manner in which he (Mullen) delves into their experiences took me beyond my comfort level,” Thompson-Hovey wrote in her review.
This was the fifth year of The Daily News-sponsored review contest.
While the lunch-time program offers contest winners a more personal experience with the author, others will have an opportunity to meet and ask questions of Mullen during four talks and book signings next week. Author visits are scheduled for 1 p.m. March 13 in the Conable Technology Building at Genesee Community College, 7 p.m. March 13 at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., Batavia; 7 p..m March 14 at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, 620 West Ave., Medina; and 2 p.m. March 15 at in the Perry Elementary/Middle School Auditorium, 50 Olin Ave., Perry, a program organized by Wyoming County libraries.
Book discussions continue through next Wednesday at libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.
To read all of this year’s book review contest entries, visit www.taleforthreecounties.org and click the link for “book review contest.” A schedule of events can also be found on the site.
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation