Review Contest -2008

Reviewers were asked to discuss their reaction to the overall book, a theme or character and how effectively that reaction is expressed. They should explain what they liked or didn’t like.

2008 – The Winners
Ann B., Perry
Is it possible to isolate oneself from physical or moral contamination?
The Last Town on Earth portrays people trying, with the best motives, to
separate themselves from others in order to protect themselves, but in
doing so, they seem to create their own destruction. The theme of
isolation runs through the book. A town created partly as a social and
economic experiment in order to avoid the ills its people have
experienced tries to protect itself from a fatal illness by cutting off
all contact with the rest of the world. Individuals struggle with their
own consciences, with choices and consequences, as they too strive to do
the right thing. The seeds of destruction seem to lie within humanity or
possibly within those good intentions (which, after all, pave Hell)
themselves, inescapably. But hope lies there, too, as the possibility of
salvation seems to lie within each and all.

Linda D., Batavia,
So much fear–so much desperation. The Last Town on Earth by Thomas
Mullen brings to life a time in our history when the desecration of the
1918 flu pandemic brought unimagined hardship. Mullen’s fictional town,
Commonwealth, so appropriately named for its vision to eliminate the
injustice of rich vs. the common man, was brought to its knees by
violence because of the town’s desperate desire to remain free of the
The noble experiment to create a town not run by the injustice of the
rich but founded on the principle of the equality of all its citizens
just added more drama to the events that unfold as the town is engulfed
in the greater battle for right vs. wrong. This well-written, although
dark story, where the best intentions lead to never expected actions
made me ponder the possibility–can fear and desperation make one do the

Kathy G., Holley
The Last Town on Earth with a seemingly simple plot, has multiple layers
showing intense knowledge of the human response to conflict. The central
conflict of this story poses a moral dilemma with two townspeople
responding differently. I was caught up in the overall human response to
tragedy exhibited by the inhabitants of Commonweath.
News reaches our ears today of tragedy and we immediately wonder how
those involved are able to cope, how they could possibly continue on.
Mullen says, through Amelia, “…it is within us all.” And, indeed, it
appears to be so.
The book’s pace complimented the feeling of moving through tragedy-never
rushing, but continuing steadily forward, just as people move through
personal conflicts. The flu, the invasion of righteous citizens from
another town, interpersonal differences-not one character was permitted
to circumvent their problem but had to allow time to pass in a laborious
Such is our life. At times we can mitigate circumstances but most likely
we just have to let time take us through to whatever closure awaits.
“When all was well, you assumed that to suffer such a staggering blow
would break you, but when such ills actually befell you, you somehow
persevered. You didn’t survive to prove something to anyone, you didn’t
press on simply because you wished to and you didn’t endure because of
what the preacher in church said. You survived because deep inside
everyone was the simple, indefatigable need to press on, whatever the
costs. And even if so much was stripped away that you no longer
recognized yourself, the thing left was the part of you that you never
understood, that you always underestimated, that you were always afraid
to look at. You were afraid you’d need it one day and it wouldn’t be
there for you, but in fact, was the one thing that couldn’t be taken
away.” (p. 347).

Meghan H., Perry
The explosive start of Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth serves
both to draw the reader in and to ignite the unraveling of the fictional
town of Commonwealth. The very guards posted to protect and insulate the
Worthy family’s utopian logging village become tools of its downfall and
symbols of ineffectiveness in the face of two epidemics, one of disease
and one of fear.
As a reader living in a small town, I reacted strongly to the situations
posed in the story. It was far too easy to imagine current situations
that could turn neighbor against neighbor. What could the introduction
of SARS, the war on terror, ethnic differences, even wind turbines do to
a seemingly peaceful village like Perry? Through the real-life influenza
crisis of 1918, Mullen speaks directly to his modern readers, warning us
just how close we all are to breakdown and chaos.

Leatha T., Albion
The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen asks many questions and compels
the reader to find answers in her own heart.
The flu epidemic of 1918 was horrific and country wide. Mount Albion
Cemetery has the gravesite of at least one young man who died during
that scary time. Commonwealth attempted its own unblemished survival by
quarantining itself. But that act precipitated consequences that were
unpredicted and unpredictable. Separating from society and the rules and
laws of that society created difficulties for many of the novel’s
characters. Is there a difference between murdering a potentially
healthy person with a cough to potentially save an entire town and
killing an entire population to save your own way of living in your home
county? Both were questions then as they are now. Our answers will have
consequences that we cannot always predict.

Joyce T., Pavilion
In the beginning chapters of The Last Town on Earth, Thomas Mullen uses
extremely graphic descriptions which transport the reader into the very
lives and emotions of his characters. 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. However, there was something that drew me to continue to read on
and I am very glad I did. Mainly it was because of the main character
Philip who seems wise beyond his years. He could have been very cynical
because life dealt him many problems that we learn about as the story of
his past unfolds. This could have hardened him, but instead he becomes a
thinker, a reflector and maybe even a philosopher. This is revealed in
his statement, “Sometimes things just happen.” Philip has developed a
great outlook on life. He realizes life is no one’s fault, nor is it a
punishment for any past sins. 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.
Other entries
Tally A., Bergen
After reading a few pages of this book, I put it down. I didn’t like it.
But because it was a book chosen by the three library systems to read, I
picked it up again and became more and more interested in it until at
the last I had trouble putting it down. This tragic action-filled tale
in the new experimental logging community of Commonwealth with no formal
government or hospital and with limited medical knowledge trying to deal
with the influenza epidemic of World War I was fascinating while
The attempts of the people to keep the flu out of the community and to
solve the other endless problems made me thankful for the good people in
1918 and the good people now with different but equally difficult
problems who help the community survive.

Sarah B., Silver Springs
Thomas Mullen has created a study of boundaries and of the questions
they present. The town of Commonwealth is secluded deep in the woods
requiring an effort to come or go even in good times and its quarantine
is meant to make those travels impossible. Later we learn that that is
not the case: germs and people are just as able to cross over the
boundary as they were before the lines were drawn.
Philip’s personal boundaries are much more relaxed. He is able to
befriend Frank and emerge physically unscathed as his emotions are
caught up in the story of Frank’s life. With Elsie, Philip is cautious
about revealing his feeling and being seen as too eager. Later he is
eager to hold and kiss her-drawing her into his life, his body, knowing
full well that her mother is dying from the flu.

Bonnie B., Wyoming
Thomas Mullen’s book, The Last Town on Earth, shows the lengths one
town’s founder will go to protect his citizens from the Spanish flu
While Charles Worthy thought his plan of a quarantine of the town was a
workable one, human nature being what it is, not everyone was in
agreement. Some residents even went so far as to sabotage the plan which
had dire consequences for the other residents of Commonwealth.
This year’s selection of The Last Town on Earth was especially appealing
to me since my father’s mother succumbed to the flu during the epidemic
in the United States. It gave me a better understanding of how tragic
this illness was to the victims as well as their families.

Julie C., Oakfield
“He coughed. Loudly, thickly.” The first time I read Mullen’s book I was
“drowning in my own fluids” with a bad cold. Mullen’s palpable
descriptions of the flu only made me feel worse so I put the book down.
But months later Mullen’s soul-searching moral conflicts carried me
through. His creative ability to held me “under siege” in a similar
manner to Commonwealth’s experience, took my breath away in a good
sense. My own sickness had emptied me of rational thought previously so
I had considered Mullen’s book a difficult read. The context of my first
attempt (I had the flu!) influenced my negative perceptions. After the
second reading I felt “wonderful and horrible” like Philip after his
ordeal. Mullen demonstrated how life’s suffering increases our
irrational thinking and skews our judgment. I understood now how my own
suffering (minor!) influenced my thinking. Thank you, Tom Mullen.

Marcia C., Middleport
The premise of this book, the influenza epidemic of 1918, was very
interesting to me because I am also reading The Great Influenza by John
Barry. The Last Town on Earth did an excellent job accurately describing
the symptoms and consequences of acquiring influenza in that time and of
the public’s reaction. While influenza may have created the basis of the
conflict in the book, the theme was certainly much more individual. It
delved into the though processes of the characters and how different
people handled the same unfortunate circumstances that the influenza
outbreak created.
It was a troubling read for me. I was anxious and uncertain for the
characters, able to identify with each character’s personal reaction to
the possibility of an unknown (in this case, influenza). In today’s
society where biological warfare is not only possible but probably, I
had to examine how I might react to such a disaster. Would I open my
home to those seeking help or would I, like Graham, take any means to
keep my family safe?

Betty H., Stafford
When unbridled fear takes hold, we are all capable of becoming someone
we wouldn’t want to be, myself included. Not one of us can guarantee we
wouldn’t kill someone if placed in Graham’s situation. Prisons are full
of people who didn’t plan on committing murder.
How do we protect ourselves from an enemy we can’t see, however?
Everyone would agree that the threat of death is a proven risk of war.
Fighting an enemy you can’t see produces a new set of rules. No one
wanted to believe this faceless enemy could invade their space. It’s so
ironic that a virus indiscriminately killed more people worldwide than a
war did.
Everyone wants to maintain control of their destiny. People facing a
terminal illness say they feel less like a victim when they make their
own decisions. I am reminded though of something my father always said,
“We all have to die of something.” Ultimately, doesn’t reality prove how
little control we really have over our lives?

Amy J., Oakfield
In 1918 the world was nearing the end of the cruelest war of all
time–the Great War which was to be the “war to end all wars” and then
things really got bad…
The influenza pandemic of 1918 took 10 times the number of lives lost in
World War I. Over a quarter of the world’s population was affected by
this terrible modern plague whose attack on the human body was
unbelievably violent. This is the subject that Thomas Mullen chose for
his first novel, The Last Town on Earth.
Commonwealth, a small commune-type mill community in the state of
Washington has somehow remained unaffected by the burgeoning Spanish flu
that is quickly spreading its devastation across the country. In an
effort to keep the flu out, the citizens of Commonwealth have decided by
majority vote to quarantine the town off from the rest of the world.
Guards are posted by the only entrance into town and here is where the
story begins. Philip, the adopted tender-hearted son of the town’s
founder, and Graham, a rugged but devoted friend and big brother-type
figure to Philip, are on duty when a weary soldier approaches the town
one evening. A decision must be made and made quickly when the soldier
refuses to heed their warnings and turn back. When Graham makes the
difficult decision to shoot the soldier—who appears to be unwell–the
gravity of this decision weighs heavily on Philip.
When the same situation presents itself again, Philip decides to allow
the next soldier entrance into the town and hides him in a warehouse for
the night. Of course, this is soon discovered and again the citizens of
Commonwealth are faced with a moral dilemma.
As he introduces each of the characters into the story, Thomas Mullen
gives the reader a brief glimpse into their lives and how they came to
be associated with the town of Commonwealth. In this way he is able to
paint a picture of life during this turbulent period while presenting a
myriad of social and moral issues. His superb writing style combined
with brilliant character development has made it nearly impossible for
the reader to not feel empathy for each character whose decisions are
certainly understandable based on their own set of past experiences.
Ultimately, I believe it is the flu that provokes the reader’s angst,
anger, sadness, remorse and frustration.
When I finished reading this novel, I felt the need to know more about
this devastating plague and its far-reaching effects on life during the
early 20th century. No doubt, this book will spark great discussions and
hopefully some interest into this deadly time in our not-so-distant past.
Sue P., Medina
Admittedly, if not for the Tale of Three Counties, I probably never
would have read this book. So many books, so little time, etc.! The Tale
forces me out of my comfort zone to read something I might otherwise
have passed over. On the other hand, it did appeal to me as historical
fiction is one genre I adore. And the blurb on the back pulled me right
in because I had never really heard much about the 1918 epidemic.
The style of storytelling is fantastic, the action of the story
interspaced with background information on the different characters.
It’s a very tense, gripping story that covers just about every basic
human value and emotion! And to think that real people and real towns
dealt with World War I and this influenza makes me wish my grandmother
were still alive so I could ask her what it was like!

David S., Le Roy
According to John Donne’s famous quotation, “No man is an island, entire
of itself.” Donne may be right or he may be crazy or (as Billy Joel once
wrote), “It just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” It may be true
that you’re looking for a lunatic if you’re reading John Donne, but one
thing is for sure-you will feel like saying that John Donne is wrong if
you have just finished reading The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen.
In Mullen’s tight novel we have a town that has isolated itself from the
rest of the world. But we also have two main characters who act
completely alone without the counsel or complicity of anyone else in
town. When Graham decides to murder the soldier in the warehouse, he
does so without telling anyone else about it. And when Philip staggers
into Graham’s house to rescue him, he acts alone without anyone’s
urging. When Philip shoots the sheriff, it isn’t even premeditated-he
sees the sheriff raise his revolver and he blows him away with his
shotgun. Afterwards, Graham and Philip never discuss their motives.
Both Philip and Graham are emotional and psychological islands. Graham
doesn’t even confide in his wife. Philip confides in his girlfriend,
Emily, but she dies from the flu, leaving Philip all alone once more. He
has become the town pariah because he let the soldier in and supposedly
exposed everyone to the flu. He is isolated both from within and from
without. I would have to conclude from reading Mullen’s novel that Donne
was wrong. I would have to say that some men are, in fact, islands,
entire unto themselves. That brings us back to Billy Joel as he sings so
wisely in that song of his, “Turn out the light, don’t try to save me,
you may be wrong, for all I know you may be right.”

Eleanor S., Warsaw
The problems facing the characters in The Last Town of Earth were ones
that had been faced before. These people dared to move their homes into
the unknown northern territories. People were afraid of strangers. Word
had been sent around that spies were secretly reporting the men who had
not registered for the draft. They were so far from law and order that
they could remain unnoticed.
In the early 1900s, women were still trying to be able to vote! They met
secretly plotting to achieve just that! To halt daily exposure to the
deadly influenza virus, the people of the town of Commonwealth erected a
quarantine sign with guards at all times.
This part of the story brought to my memory a true happening in my own
family. The time was 1918, long before my birthdate of May 25, 1924. My
relatives explained what had happened. My mother’s sister, Aunt Jen,
married a young man from New York. They purchased a nice farm on Lamont
Road. They had 81 acres with fine soil and the East Koy Creek flowing
through. My uncle was very proud of his property so he put up a sign
with his name in a half circle on the horse barn. He wanted everyone to
know who owned it! My uncle was called in the 1918 draft just as
thousands of others had done. Sadly for everyone concerned, Jen’s young
husband contracted the influenza virus and suddenly passed away.
This was just as Thomas Mullen’s story but it was so sad when it was
your own family. When I was a child I could not understand what happened
to my uncle. Why had he painted his name on his barn? The last time I
looked it was still up there! I’m the last one in my family but I
realize that time does repeat itself. We now face the threat of bird flu
developing in our own country. So much for the good old days!

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