The Last Town on Earth Paperback – 4 Jun 2007
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'Thomas Mullen is an old-fashioned storyteller, and his epic novel dramatizes the complex tensions between individual rights and group responsibilities. Mullen is both merciless and measured in his depiction of the natural forces that can drag idealism down to earth.' Daily Telegraph
'A subtle, robustly written novel of compelling contemporary resonance. The ensuing crisis involves the entire community, pitting principles against passion, values against instinct.' Observer
'Thomas Mullen's debut novel is an exceptionally powerful portrait of a community losing its soul under intense pressure.' Waterstones Books Quarterly
From the Author
About the Book
`But They Never Talked About It' - by Thomas Mullen
One tip an aspiring novelist often will hear is `don't try to write something trendy or marketable'. The reason for this is that novels take so long to research, write, edit, and publish that by the time your book hits the stores, the trend that you were hoping to capitalize on will be last year's news - or, more likely, news from five years ago.
So I thought I was safe from this quandary by writing about the 1918 influenza, a historical footnote that few Americans other than historians, virologists, and public health officials seemed to know about as I began my work in 2002. Indeed, one of the only books I could find on the event was titled `America's Forgotten Pandemic'. I myself had been a history major in college and had even focused on Twentieth Century history, yet I'd never heard of the 1918 flu until I saw mention of it in a long article about an AIDS virologist who had once studied the fatal flu strain. What truly got my attention was the striking fact that some uninfected towns in 1918 had posted armed guards to keep outsiders away - the novel's opening confrontation took form in my mind immediately - but I was equally amazed that such a horrific and worldwide event could have become, as the book's title suggests, forgotten.
Why had this major catastrophe been swept under the carpets of history? Possibly because it had occurred during World War I; history texts from this era spend all their ink on the war and can't be troubled to mention the flu - it merits a sentence or two if it gets mentioned at all, even though it killed as many as 100 million people worldwide, far more than the war itself.
I was further intrigued by the fact that, although the 1918 flu took place during the formative years of such literary giants as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos, none of them had written about it. Many writers of that golden literary age found war a weighty topic to expound upon, allowing exploration of such themes as manhood, patriotism, and courage. But a senseless illness that killed so many, without discrimination, did not appeal to these writers the same way, apparently. Perhaps it was too reminiscent - albeit in much greater form - of past typhoid or yellow fever or cholera outbreaks, a reminder of pre-modern times best ignored by young writers hoping to forge a bold new artistic path. Perhaps people had so internalized the incessant propaganda of World War I - to be strong and patriotic and never admit fear - and as a result it would have been unseemly to expound upon or even write about the lives lost to the flu, to stare in the face of such issues as failure and helplessness, to recount such undignified deaths.
Or perhaps the flu was a bitter memory they just wanted to forget.
A number of readers have approached me after reading The Last Town on Earth and told me that its subject reminded them of a great-aunt or a great-grandfather who lost a spouse or parents or children to the epidemic. I have been struck by the fact that their stories always end with some variation of the line: `But she never talked about it.' There seemed to be a wall of silence surrounding survivors' memories of the 1918 flu, which, after the passing of many generations, was quickly leading to the very erasure of those memories. I can only imagine that this is due to the unimaginable horror of the time, the mind's inability to fully grasp what it had experienced and what it had lost. In our current age of psychoanalysis, talk shows, and tell-all memoirs, it is argued that the best way to recover from traumatic events and difficult pasts is to dredge up those memories, to `come to terms' with the fact of those wounds and their effect on our present selves - only then, the theory goes, can we achieve `closure' and become a healthier person. But the mindset in the 1910s was very different, and perhaps survivors felt the only way they could possibly recover from such an event was if they built a wall around those memories and tried, ever so slowly, to walk away from them.
One of the reasons I wrote The Last Town on Earth, then, was that it felt needed, that it would not only fill a gap in the literary canon but also, hopefully, would help retrieve some of the memories that were fading, would provide a new echo for stories that had not been voiced in many years.
By the time the book was published, of course, fear of bird flu - and virologists' warnings that mankind was overdue for another major influenza outbreak - had brought the 1918 flu out of history's dustbin and onto the front pages. Suddenly I was being told that the novel that I thought would be most interesting due to its unknown setting was now `timely', though such timing was unintended and certainly unexpected.
Although the 1918 flu was largely a natural disaster, human actions certainly exacerbated the situation. Governments were too distracted by war to devote sufficient resources to protecting public health, newspapers were cowed by censors into reporting only good news, and citizens showed distrust and suspicion toward their neighbors most in need of aid. People, quite simply, did not know what to do; they had neither government nor media nor family legends and stories to guide them. Even today, despite our many medical advances, it is sobering to realize how much more vulnerable our globalized world would be to such an outbreak. Eighty-nine years since that most awful epidemic, perhaps now is the time to remember what those before us have endured, to understand how the earlier versions of our societies reacted, and to talk about how we might respond if cast in a similar crucible.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
I also agree that some of the imagery and, in particular, the language used in the book is a real strength. However, overall, the characters were lacklustre, the story was at times confusing and my general impression was that it could just have been so much better if it had been more tightly crafted and edited to a higher standard. In the end, I came to the conclusion, that the author wasn't really sure what type of book it was that he was writing. Is it a historical novel? Because a gripping story about the flu epidemic of 1918 would have made for a great read. Or is it a political diatribe? I'd prefer the former over the latter; but this seemed to be a bit of both.
Even the cover of the book didn't make that much sense to me after reading the novel. The wording is "As a deadly epidemic threatens their town, two men must decide its fate." And that's the way it seems to be when the first soldier arrives to intrude upon the town's self-imposed quarantine. But then another soldier turns up and another man intervenes.Read more ›
It is a powerful story for all that and Thomas Mullen is an author of promise. I was disappointed by the ending which seemed to be a bit of action to bring everything to a climax. Some parts of the narrative were rather drawn out and repetitive but I have to admit that I enjoyed the reading of it overall. Possibly Mullen could have benefited from some for tighter editing to make this a really well crafted book. It misses the mark but not by much.
The characters are well drawn and believable from Philip, the mill owner's adopted son, to JB Merriweather, a banker from the neighbouring town. The plot involves young Philip allowing a deserter into the town and what happens thereafter to him and his friend and idol, Graham, and the rest of the inhabitants. Despite a canvas that encompasses many different characters, Mullen holds it all together very well, and succeed in creating a believable and interesting story.There are obvious parallels to the events of the last few years, specifically Bush's War on Terror, but the author never overdoes it and he largely leaves it to the reader to make the connections.
Why only three stars then? Well, firstly it lacks a fiery sense of passion at the injustices suffered by the characters. It is at times a little too polite and the writing is rather dry. Secondly, as others have mentioned, there are some anomolies, and thirdly the ending feels unresolved and makes the book a less satisfying read because of it. Nevertheless, I would still recommend it.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I started this novel and it appears to be of a fascinating subject matter, as I am interested in pathology, as well as tales of remote townships in the wilds. Read morePublished 21 months ago by KrissyG
It's hard to really categorize this book into a genre. It is book about a town shutting itself off from society (due to the threat of a deadly flu outbreak) that is part literary... Read morePublished on 21 Mar. 2013 by Amazon Customer
I don't normally review books I've read but I felt compelled to say a few words about this excellent book. Read morePublished on 25 Sept. 2011 by Steve W
I have tried twice with this book, but I'm afraid it hasn't gripped or intrigued me at all, and so has been returned, barely read, to my shelf. Read morePublished on 27 Mar. 2010 by E. Heckingbottom
This book is highly topical at the moment, although I'm not sure that Thomas Mullen intended it to be that way. Read morePublished on 23 Oct. 2009 by E. Chittenden
Set during the Great War this novel echos current, probably fallacious, pandemic concerns. In view of the number of reviews outlining the underlying plot behind the book I will... Read morePublished on 9 Sept. 2009 by Dr. Paul Ell
This novel is set at the time of the Spanish flu outbreak in the early 20th century. The residents of a small town in the state of Washington decide that they are going to close... Read morePublished on 25 Aug. 2009 by Tealady2000
This starts out slowly - achingly so. I gave up twice but on the third attempt, finally made it past the first third and that's when the thing really takes off and a corking good... Read morePublished on 18 Aug. 2009 by marcoscu
This book sounds like it will deliver but unfortunately just doesn't quite make it. The author has done his homework and wrings a lot from the setting. Read morePublished on 16 Jun. 2009 by Brian Hamilton