The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen, Random House, 2006
The prize-winning novel that is the subject of this review was discovered on a table at the Friends of the Wake Forest (North Carolina) Library annual book sale in May of 2010. It is historical fiction, a tale about a town called Commonwealth, whose citizens voted to keep outsiders from coming in and insiders from going out during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.
What happens when a cold and hungry soldier appears on the town’s only road in and pleads with rifle-toting town guards to let him come in for food and rest begins the story and proceeds to test the town’s values. Patriotism, loyalty, family – all these and more are on display and up for discussion as the citizens of Commonwealth struggle to maintain their quarantine.
Two main purposes spring to mind by way of explaining why this novel has had an effect on me that goes beyond entertainment from a good read.
First, there is so little written about the great flu pandemic. Mr. Mullen surmises that because it took place while World War I was raging the war was more interesting to writers of the time; the deadly flu could not compete for their talented minds. There is also the argument that the war presented the world with a complete set of villains to conquer, whereas the flu chose its victims randomly and quickly and there was no explanation for it, no one to blame.
Second, there are memories to unearth. Mention the flu pandemic to most anyone over the age of fifty and you are just as likely to run into what the author calls a “wall of silence” as you are to hear about a lost grandfather or uncle or cousin. In the 1910’s, he observes, people were inclined to greet great tragedy with a stoic reaction as opposed to today’s daily confessions to television and radio talk show hosts.
Miscellaneous information from the novel and various sources on the Internet:
– Many more Americans died of this flu than in combat in World War I.
– The pandemic lasted over two years, from March of 1918 to June of 1920,
– 50 million people died of the flu and 500 million were infected (world population at the time was 1.6 billion, so almost a third of the world population was infected).
– Flu patients were mostly young, healthy adults, as opposed to most influenza outbreaks that affect juveniles, the elderly, and patients who are weak to begin with.
– A Wikipedia article has a list of “notable” victims of the 1918 flu, including Frederick Trump, Grandfather of Donald Trump.
If you love a good story that both entertains and educates, this book is for you!