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A Novel

Written by Thomas MullenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Thomas Mullen

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On Sale: August 29, 2006
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-564-4
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that America ever experienced–the 1918 flu epidemic–Thomas Mullen’s powerful, sweeping first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval.

Deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the Pacific Northwest is a small mill town called Commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. For Philip Worthy, the adopted son of the town’s founder, it is a haven in another sense–as the first place in his life he’s had a loving family to call his own.

And yet, the ideals that define this outpost are being threatened from all sides. A world war is raging, and with the fear of spies rampant, the loyalty of all Americans is coming under scrutiny. Meanwhile, another shadow has fallen across the region in the form of a deadly illness striking down vast swaths of surrounding communities.

When Commonwealth votes to quarantine itself against contagion, guards are posted at the single road leading in and out of town, and Philip Worthy is among them. He will be unlucky enough to be on duty when a cold, hungry, tired–and apparently ill–soldier presents himself at the town’s doorstep begging for sanctuary. The encounter that ensues, and the shots that are fired, will have deafening reverberations throughout Commonwealth, escalating until every human value–love, patriotism, community, family, friendship–not to mention the town’s very survival, is imperiled.

Inspired by a little-known historical footnote regarding towns that quarantined themselves during the 1918 epidemic, The Last Town on Earth is a remarkably moving and accomplished debut.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1



I

The road to Commonwealth was long and forbidding, stretching for miles beyond Timber Falls and leading deep into the evergreen woods, where the trees grew taller still as if trying to reach the sun that teased them with the paucity of its rays. Douglas fir loomed over the rock-strewn road like two warring armies perched on opposing cliffs. Even those travelers who all their lives had been reminded of their insignificance felt particularly humbled by that stretch of road and the preternatural darkness that shadowed it.

Some number of miles into the woods, the road curved to the right and the trees backed off a bit, the brown dirt and occasional stumps evidence that the woods had been cleared out only recently, and only with extreme tenacity. The clearing rose along a gradual incline; at the base of the hill, a tree that had recently been chopped down blocked the road. Into its thick bark a sign was nailed: a warning to travelers who didn’t exist, a silent cry into deaf woods.

A crisp wind picked up atop the bare hill, carrying the combined exhalations of millions of fir and pine. Philip sucked in his breath.

“Cold?” Graham asked.

“I’m fine.”

Graham motioned back to the town. “You need to get yourself a warmer jacket, go ahead.”

“I’ll stay.”

“Suit yourself.” Philip did look cold in his thin jacket and khaki pants—pencil-pusher attire—whereas Graham was clad in his usual blue overalls and a thick wool coat.

“Look like it’s gonna snow to you?” Philip Worthy was sixteen, tall despite the limp that made people think he was shorter, but not as brawny as most of the men in that town of lumberjacks and millworkers.

“It’s not going to snow.”

Graham, twenty-five, was what in many ways Philip aspired to be: strong, quietly wise, the man of his house. While Philip felt he needed to be polite and conversational to ingratiate himself with people, Graham seemed to say the minimum necessary and always won respect. Philip had known him for two years, and he still wanted to figure out how a fellow did that.

“Colder’n I thought it’d be,” Philip said. “Sometimes that means snow.”

Graham understood his companion’s dread of snow. He shook his head. “It’s cold, but it ain’t going to snow. It’s October.”

Philip nodded, shoulders hunched against the cold.

Graham laid his rifle on the ground, then took off his coat. “Here, put it on.”

“No, really, I’ll be all right. I don’t want you to get—”

“Put the damn coat on.” Graham smiled. “I’ve got more meat on my bones anyway.”

“Thanks.” Philip placed his rifle beside Graham’s. The jacket was big on him, the sleeves extending beyond his hands. He knew he looked foolish, but it was as good as wearing gloves. He wouldn’t be able to hold the rifle, but that seemed fine, since he didn’t expect he’d need to.

“Who do you think that was in the Model T on Sunday?” Philip asked.

“Don’t know.” Neither of them had been at the post on Sunday, when two other guards had seen a shiny new Ford drive as far as the fallen tree would allow. The guard post was too far away to get a good look at the driver, who never emerged from his automobile. The fedora told them it was a man, but that was all. The man had apparently read the sign, stopped to think for no longer than a moment, then turned around and driven away. It was the only sighting of an outsider since the town had closed itself off.

Commonwealth sat about fifty miles northeast of Seattle, or maybe a hundred—no one seemed to know except the town’s founder, Charles Worthy, and those who transported the town’s timber. To the east were the jagged peaks of the Cascades, close enough to be seen on a clear day but far enough to disappear when the clouds were low and thick. On those days, the town seemed to be cut off from the rest of the earth. Miles to the west was the open sea, the confluence of Puget Sound to the south, the Strait of Georgia to the north, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west, the point where all three combined and wrapped their cold embrace around the San Juan Islands. But the sea was just far enough away, blocked by the thick forest, that it might as well not have been there at all.

Commonwealth was no ordinary town, and that helped explain why it appeared on no maps, as if the rest of the civilized world preferred to ignore its existence. It had no mayor, no postmaster, no sheriff. It had no prison, no taxman, no train station, no rail lines. No church, no telephones, no hospital. No saloon, no nickelodeon. Commonwealth had pretty much nothing but a timber mill, homes for the workers, plenty of land from which to tear down more trees, and the few trappings necessary to support the mill, such as a general store and a doctor’s office. To shop for items the store didn’t sell, to visit the moving pictures, or to attend traditional church services, people went to Timber Falls, fifteen miles to the southwest. But no one from town was allowed to leave anymore, and no one was allowed to come in.

“Think the driver will come back?” Philip asked. The wind blew his thin brown hair across his forehead.

Graham thought for a moment, his face appearing immovable as his blue-green eyes focused on the base of the hill. “No, not after he saw the sign. If it was someone who really wanted to come in, he would’ve tried. Probably just somebody on mill business who didn’t know about the quarantine.”

Philip nodded, appreciating Graham’s certainty.

Philip had grown up with neither father nor siblings, dragged throughout the West by an itinerant mother until the accident that left him in the Worthys’ care. And when his new family had moved to Commonwealth two years ago to start this bold experiment, he had quickly befriended Graham, who hadn’t realized how much he’d missed his own younger brothers until he met Philip.

Graham, like many millworkers, had run away from his home too young, chased off by a drunk father with whom he had violently clashed one time too many. He had been about Philip’s age when he’d left his home in Kansas, and sometimes when he looked at Philip, he was amazed that he himself had been so headstrong, so foolish, to venture out into the world at such an overwhelmed age. Somehow he had survived, survived bloody strikes and stints in jail and fights with cops, and here he was, a foreman at a respectable mill. Though he had his own family to care for now, he liked teaching Philip the things he’d learned from his older brother, to hunt his first deer, catch his first fish, navigate the trails that cut through the endless forest.

In truth, Graham didn’t feel so certain that the man in the automobile wouldn’t return, but the mere sound of his own calm voice was reassuring. This was why Graham had missed having younger brothers, he realized—they made you feel almost as strong as the image they looked up to.

Philip and Graham’s first stint as guards, four days earlier, had been uneventful. They had stood there for the ten long hours, silent for stretches and chatting when the boredom became too great. Wondering aloud how long the flu would last, swapping stories of past illnesses and ailments. Philip had even proposed a small wager as to how long the quarantine would last, but Graham had lightly chastised him for being indelicate. Philip regretted the comment, felt young and stupid. But other than that the time had passed slowly, the sky gradually darkening, the mists descending from the formless clouds above, leaving the two watchmen damp and tired and longing for their warm homes, where they would have nothing interesting to share with their families over the supper table.

“So how’s ‘class’ coming?” Graham asked, minutes or hours later.

“Class is fine. Ask me anything you’d like to know about interest payments.”

“I would like to know nothing at all, thank you very much.”

Philip was Charles Worthy’s apprentice, being trained in the business side of the mill, bred for the same job that Charles himself had held in his father’s mill, the one he had disgustedly turned his back on only two years ago.

“You honestly like sittin’ in a chair all day?” Graham asked.

“Wouldn’t know what else to compare it to.”

Philip wondered if Graham looked down on his desk work, but with his damaged body, Philip was a bad candidate for labor of a more physical nature. He gave a surreptitious glance at Graham’s missing finger, the one he’d lost in a mill accident some years ago, and figured his wasn’t such a bad lot to draw.

Just the other day, Philip had helped calculate what the mill would save if it switched over from gang saws to band saws, whose thinner blades would mean losing less of the timber to sawdust. It had been challenging work, but when he was finished, he felt he’d contributed something of value to the mill, and his father’s soft-spoken compliment was still ringing in his ears.

“How’s your little girl doing?” Philip asked.

“She’s great,” Graham said with a slight smile. “Been crawlin’ all over the house lately. Amelia’s gotta keep her eyes on her all the time now.”

“How long till she talks?”

“A few months yet, at least.”

“How long till she chops down trees like her old man?”

“Till hell freezes over.”

“I don’t know,” Philip said, “she’s got that lumberjack look to her.”

“That lumberjack look? What’s that?”

Philip shrugged. “She drools a lot. Burps. Kinda smells sometimes.”

Graham nodded, smirking.

“So you get any sleep, or is she still up all night?”

“I sleep when I can.”

“Like when you’re out here standing guard.”

“I was not asleep last time. I was resting my eyes and ignoring you. It’s an important skill a man develops after he has a wife and kid. Trust me on this.

“Speaking of which,” Graham continued after a brief pause, looking at Philip from the corner of his eye, “I keep seeing you talking with that Metzger girl.”

Philip shrugged unconvincingly. “She’s my sister’s friend.”

“So how come I keep seeing you and her and no sister?”

It took an extra second for Philip to come up with a retort. “What, a guy can’t talk to a girl?”

Graham smiled. “Boy, I hope you’re less obvious with her than you are with me.”

Minutes of silence had passed before they saw someone at the base of the hill.

They saw him through the tree trunks first, hints of light brown and tan flashing every other second through that tangle of bark. Each of them stiffened, breath held, as they waited to see if a figure would emerge or if they had imagined it, if it was some trick of light.

The figure turned the corner and looked up the hill, saw the town in the distance. Between him and the town stood Philip and Graham, though he seemed not to notice them.

“You see that, too, right?” Philip asked.

“I see it.”

The figure started walking toward them.

“Read the sign,” Graham quietly commanded the stranger. “Read the sign.”

Indeed, after a couple of seconds, the figure reached the sign and stopped. Stopped for an unusually long time, as if he could barely read and there were one too many big words written there. Then the man looked up at them. Graham made sure his rifle was visible, standing up beside him, his hand under the barrel so that it was pointing away from him.

Philip hadn’t looked at the sign in days yet he had memorized what it said.

QUARANTINE

ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY ALLOWED!

On Account of the Outbreak of INFLUENZA

This Town Under Strict QUARANTINE.

This Area Under Constant Watch of ARMED Guards.

Neither STRANGER Nor FRIEND May Pass Beyond This Marker.

May God Protect You.

After reading the sign the man had some sort of brief spasm, one of his hands reaching to his face. Then he stepped up to the fallen tree and started climbing over it. It was an impressive tree, and it took him a

moment to ascend its thick trunk. Then he was past it and walking toward them again.

“He’s still coming,” Philip said helplessly, trying not to panic. He hurriedly rolled up the sleeves of Graham’s coat, wondering why he felt fid-gety and nervous when Graham seemed to become even more still than usual.

The man walked with a slight limp, wincing when he moved his right leg. It made his progress slower but somehow more definite. His clothes suggested a uniform of some kind, with stripes on one sleeve. As the man approached, Philip and Graham saw the back end of a rifle poking up over his right shoulder.

He’s a soldier, Philip thought, confused.

He was nearly halfway to them. No more than eighty yards away.

“Stop right there!” Graham shouted. “This town is under quarantine! You can’t come any closer!”

The man did as he was told. He had dark and uncombed hair that appeared somewhat longer than a typical soldier’s. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, and there was a piece of cloth tied around his right thigh, colored black from what might have been dried blood. His uniform was dirty all over the legs and was smeared with mud across parts of the chest.

Then the soldier sneezed.

“Please!” The man needed to raise his voice in order to be heard over the distance, but the effort of doing so seemed almost too much for him. “I’m starving. I just need a little something to eat . . .”

What’s a soldier doing out here, Philip wanted to ask, but he kept the thought to himself.

“You can’t come up here, buddy,” Graham replied. “The sign said, we’re under a quarantine. We can’t let anyone in.”

“I don’t care if I get sick.” The man shook his head at them. He was young, closer in age to Philip than to Graham. He had some sort of an accent, not foreign but from some other part of the country. New England, or maybe New York—Philip wasn’t sure. The man’s jaw was hard and his face bony and angular, the type of face Philip’s mother would have told him you couldn’t trust, though Philip never knew why.

“I’m starving—I need something to eat. I’ve been out in the woods two days now. There was an accident—”

“It’s not you getting sick we’re worried about.” Graham’s voice was still strong, almost bullying. “We’re the only town around here that isn’t sick yet, and we aim to keep it that way. Now head on back down that road.”

The soldier looked behind him halfheartedly, then back at Graham. “How far’s the next town?”

“’Bout fifteen miles,” Graham replied. Commonwealth was not on the way to or from any other town—the road led to Commonwealth and ended there. So where had the soldier come from?

“Fifteen miles? I haven’t eaten in two days. It’ll be dark in a few hours.”

He coughed. Loudly, thickly. How far does breath travel? Philip wondered.


From the Hardcover edition.
Thomas Mullen|Author Q&A

About Thomas Mullen

Thomas Mullen - The Last Town on Earth

Photo © Greg Martin

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers and The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of the Year by USA Today and Best Book of the Year by Chicago Tribune, and won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and son.
 

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Thomas Mullen

Readers Circle: What inspired you to write this book?


Thomas Mullen: Many things, but the short answer would be that, years ago, I read a magazine article about an AIDS virologist who had once studied the 1918 flu virus. I had never heard of the 1918 flu, nor had most people I spoke to about it, and I was stunned at the sheer number of people who died in the pandemic (for example: far more Americans died of the flu than died during World War I, which happened concurrently). The article mentioned parenthetically that the flu had been so lethal and terrifying that some towns had attempted to stay healthy by closing the roads into town and preventing any outsiders from entering. I immediately visualized a scene in which two bored guards are confronted by a cold, hungry outsider begging from food and shelter. The moral dilemma fascinated me: would they act out of charity and compassion to aid the man, or would they put their own lives and those of their families above the stranger's life, forcing him to die in the woods? And what would happen if the two guards made different decisions when faced with this dilemma - how would each of their decisions affect their friendship and, more importantly, the society they lived in?

RC: Were you deliberately drawing comparisons between the 1918 bird flu and recent avian flu outbreaks?

TM: This may sound unbelievable today, when newspaper articles about bird flu and the 1918 pandemic appear daily, but back when I conceived of the story and wrote The Last Town on Earth, bird flu was barely on the radar screen, and the 1918 flu seemed to have vanished from collective memory. I had trouble finding much information on the pandemic; one of the only histories of the event I could find, in fact, was titled America’s Forgotten Pandemic. (John Barry’s The Great Influenza would not be published until 2004, by which time I was nearly finished with my first draft.) The 1918 flu was an obscure enough subject that, in the extremely rare event that a contemporary newspaper article mentioned it, all of my friends and family would email the story to me, adding little notes like “Wow, the 1918 flu!” It was that much of a big deal to see any reference to it whatsoever. This horrific and worldwide event, strangely enough, had been swept under the carpets of history.

When I was writing the novel, I was aware that some scientists felt that we were overdue for another epidemic, but I hadn’t heard much about the bird flu and wasn’t sure there was a connection. The novel was not conceived as some sort of prediction of the future or even an attempt to draw parallels between the 1918 epidemic and contemporary times. The book for me became a way of analyzing human nature, of trying to determine who we are, how we act the way we do, how much are we guided by moral principals and how readily we jettison these principals when we feel threatened. I do think human nature tends to remain rather constant, and for that reason readers hopefully can extrapolate many of the characters’ dilemmas and decisions into a variety of situations, both past and present.

RC: Why do you think there is so little material on the 1918 pandemic?

TM: This question fascinated me, and became a big part of why I was driven to write the book. No author wants to write something that’s already been done, and as I read about the flu and saw not only how profound an event it was but also how few people seemed to know about it, I felt a calling to remedy this. History texts rarely mention the flu; perhaps this is because it had taken place during World War I, and the textbooks could only handle one major event at a time. Perhaps it was considered more interesting to study war and other geopolitical events in which you can analyze and debate the motive and reasoning of the primary actors or the society as a whole, whereas something like an epidemic was considered coldly scientific, even arbitrary, as the disease attacked everyone regardless of nationality or creed.

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 age found war a weighty topic to expound upon, allowing exploration of such themes as manhood, patriotism, and courage. (Indeed, many proponents of America’s entry to war — the so-called Preparedness Movement — had argued that war would provide chivalric meaning to the younger generation, which was believed to be cast adrift in an amoral society of wanton materialism and inhuman industrialization.) But a senseless illness that killed so many, without discrimination, did not appeal to these writers the same way. 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 that was 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 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 often 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 1910’s was very different indeed, and perhaps survivors felt that 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 not only would 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.

RC: Why did you make Commonwealth a progressive, workers' community rather than a regular town?

TM: Two reasons, one practical and one thematic.

I needed to create a town that could realistically close itself off from the "outside world," so it couldn't be a town that closely bordered any neighboring communities. It couldn't have daily mail delivery, or a train depot, or a well-tended road leading to the next hamlet. The more I sketched the novel out in my head, the more the town started to seem like a hidden-away retreat. Because 1918 was an age rich with communes, collectives and other progressively conceived enclaves, it seemed a natural choice; the state of Washington was particularly hospitable to such experimental towns, having not only a rich history in progressive and radical politics but also the impenetrable forests in which attempted utopias could hide.

Because such towns were typically founded in response to what was perceived as the modern world's coarse and materialistic treatment of mankind, I thought these ideas meshed well with the central dilemma of the novel: what do we owe to our fellow man, and to what degree is it morally acceptable for us to allow selfishness to dictate our decisions? To what degree do self-defense and self-interest allow us to bend moral principles? Workers' communities like Commonwealth - coming in response to the harsh labor practices of nearby mill owners and the often-violent collaboration between business interests, police, and politicians - were created because their founders believed they could create a better society based on fair play and shared goals. Rather than making Commonwealth a full-blown socialist or communist haven, I thought it would be more interesting - and would challenge more assumptions behind the usual critiques of capitalism and democracy - to make it a socialist/capitalist hybrid. The workers are given homes and equal votes in town decisions, yes, but the mill survives only by selling its product to outsiders, including the U.S. Army, which greatly relied on the lumber mills of the Pacific Northwest for building fighter planes and the army cantonments that were hurriedly constructed in 1917 and 1918.


RC: Did writing this book change your perspective on disease? On social organization? On America’s overall safety and security?

TM: Many people have assumed that because I wrote this book, I must be obsessed with disease, or I must be a hypochondriac, or both. I’m happy to report that neither is the case. But I am fascinated in societies, in the conflict between individuals and larger society, in the tensions that are created when what is best for one is not best for the other. How do we choose? What happens to us if we choose to do something that we feel is best for our personal interest but not for the common good? Or the opposite? How do we rationalize such decisions? How do we, and the rest of society, treat people who are placed in these predicaments? Every society — and therefore country — wrestles with these issues, especially when it feels threatened. As for how it changed my own perspective, I think that writers need to put themselves in all of their characters’ heads in order to best understand them. As a result, when you write about characters whose personal philosophies are different from your own, or characters who make different decisions than you would, you force yourself to figure out how or why a person would act that way, which, hopefully, gives you a fuller understanding of people and our thought processes.

RC: Do you ever wonder what you would have done? Pull the trigger like Graham, or try and find another solution like Philip?

TM: Part of why I chose to write the book is because I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. If you seek to write a book addressing a troubling issue about which you already have rock-solid, unbreakable opinions, your book will probably come off as didactic and preachy. I hope that one of the strengths of the book is that I sought to portray, with great sympathy, the perspective of characters who disagree strongly about how this situation should be handled. If I had thought one character was fully right and the other fully wrong, the result would have been slanted and unfair — and uninteresting to read.

I would hazard that most people would like to think they would act like Philip, but, the fact is, no one truly knows how they would act in such an extreme situation until it happens to them. The way in which society as a whole reacted to the 1918 flu — and the way it has reacted to other threats, be they medical or military — shows that human nature does not always fit into the ideological belief systems or moral codes that we would like it to.

RC: What is your writing process like? Are there any routines you follow?

TM: When I wrote The Last Town on Earth I wrote mostly on the weekends, starting in the morning and trying to go until dinner, though my productivity tended to dip in the midafternoon. I usually start each day by rereading what I’d written the previous day, both as a way of reminding myself where I was and what I was doing, and as a way of editing the previous day’s work, therefore feeling a sense of accomplishment right away without the pressure of staring at a blank screen. This way I can build some momentum and keep going from there, adding to what I’d done.

Awards

Awards

WINNER 2007 James Fennimore Cooper Prize
Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

Discussion Guides

1. In what ways does Thomas Mullen use foreshadowing throughout the novel?

2. The Commonwealth quarantine is rife with moral ramifications. What are its consequences? Was Charles’ decision reasonable? What would you have done in his place?

3. The gauze mask has a ubiquitous presence throughout the story. What is its symbolic significance?

4. The flu often causes its victims to experience delusions. What other examples of delusion, literal or figurative, can you find throughout the novel?

5. Rebecca, Elsie, Tamara and other women in the novel have important influences on their male loved ones. What do these women have in common? In what ways do they exert their influence?

6. What is Frank’s significance? Why does Philip grow so attached to him?

7. Does the relationship between Frank and the C.O. resonate with Philip and Graham’s relationship? If so, how?

8. Were you surprised by Philip’s recovery? Why do you think Mullen allows him (and the rest of the Worthy family) to survive?

9. How has Philip developed by the end of the novel? Has his character progressed or regressed? Having been “stripped of so many things that he thought had defined who he was” (page 387), how, then, should we view his prior experiences?

10. Philip initially calls Graham a murderer for shooting the first soldier, but ultimately ends up shooting Bartrum to save Graham’s life. Is there a difference between their acts? Where does Philip and Graham’s relationship stand by the end of the novel?

11. A prominent motif throughout the novel is that of starting over after experiencing loss. Bearing this in mind, is your interpretation of the ending optimistic or pessimistic?

12. Would you have responded to the crisis more like Philip or like Graham?

13. Do you think Philip and Graham’s behavior differed in part because of their situations? Does that make their decisions about the soldier more or less sympathetic/understandable?

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

Teachers: If you'd like a printable version of this guide, download the PDF attachment at the bottom of this page.

The Last Town on Earth
is a compelling book that will allow you and your students to explore a multitude of literary, social, historical, and psychological issues. Set in 1918 in Washington State, the backdrop of the text is the outbreak of Spanish Flu that confronts the American home front in the midst of World War One and a town that attempts to quarantine itself against the ravages of the disease.

The text offers instructors the ability to choose from multiple areas of literary analysis. As a study of character, The Last Town on Earth, as Camus’ The Plague before it, demonstrates the lengths to which some men will go to preserve the dignity of their existence while others fall to the destruction and despair brought about by the contagion that lurks all around them. Students can see characters of different types and at different stages of development. The text shows how characters cope and how they lack the capacity for coping.

While it’s an exciting page-turner for students, The Last Town on Earth also offers the depth of development that teachers require. The parallel existence of Commonwealth and Timber Falls — the two primary towns in the novel — offers students the opportunity to analyze the parallels of plot, character, setting, and theme. Each town’s struggle is similar; yet, the response of each to the epidemic is different and conflicting.

The social and psychological issues of how each town and each individual in these towns respond to the crisis are also compelling. Will neighbor help neighbor? Will fear lead to mistrust? Will conflicting desires result in physical conflict? How will individuals respond to isolation, temptation, frustration? These issues will propel students through the book.

Historically, the text fictionalizes real problems during a real crisis in American life. The plight of the flu victims, the hardships of working families, the harshness of war on both the fighters and those left behind — all these historical issues come to play in the novel. These historically accurate events allow for not only the analysis of the fictional motivations of the characters but also the historical motivations behind the people and events.

The Last Town on Earth can provide appropriate levels of challenging study for middle school students, high school students, and college students studying ethics. The text will help instructors broaden students’ exposure both to historical and current events — the threat of a bird flu pandemic — while providing meaningful literary and moral challenges.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Reminiscent of Camus’ The Plague, The Last Town on Earth is as current as today’s headlines while telling the story of the 1918 flu epidemic. Against the backdrop of World War One, Mullen’s first novel introduces the characters of the town of Commonwealth — a lumber-mill town unlike any other.

Charles Worthy, the town’s founder, has endeavored to create a kind of Utopia in the forests of Washington State. Disgusted by his family’s treatment of mill employees, Charles, along with his wife, daughter, and adopted son, Philip, establish a lumber town in which employees share in profits, share in town decisions, and share the events of daily life. When the flu threatens their fledgling existence, the town decides to quarantine itself against the new flu that is ravaging the towns around them.

Setting up a blockade at the only road, guards sit round the clock to protect the town from any intruders. Unfortunately, a soldier shows up as Philip and his friend Graham, an older family man and surrogate father, keep guard. Graham kills the soldier as he refuses to turn back.

Only days later, Philip confronts another soldier at the barricade, setting into motion the events that threaten to destroy the town despite their precautions. Philip, having seen the effects of Graham’s actions, hides the soldier in order to keep the town safe but not shoot the second soldier. Discovered in his plot, Philip must be separated with the soldier from the town. Meanwhile, flu comes to Commonwealth. Townsman turns on townsman, and Graham attempts to purge the town of its plague. Meanwhile, the suspicious residents of Timber Falls come to find out what is going on behind the barricade.

TEACHING IDEAS

Ideas for incorporating The Last Town on Earth into the classroom fall into a number of categories — historical, social, psychological, literary — and classes can skim over or delve deeply into these areas.

The Last Town on Earth treats historical events with accuracy. Even the concept of the novel itself comes from the author’s discovery that there were towns that attempted to quarantine themselves against the influenza outbreak. Topics such as the events of World War One, home front initiatives (the “four-minute men,” victory gardens, gold stars in windows, rationing), the Spanish Influenza, working conditions in logging mills (the Industrial Workers of the World, Pinkerton Guards, strikes), and others all provide topics for discussion, activities, and research.

The novel introduces many of the social issues that were important during the novel’s time period. A class could easily explore American reluctance to enter WWI, the opposition that ensued after American involvement, and the measures the government took to quash that opposition. The plight of the working man in early twentieth-century America presents another topic for research. The socialistic nature of Commonwealth and its Utopian ideals provide further areas of exploration and discovery.

The Last Town on Earth can also be seen as a psychological thriller. The text lends itself to an exploration of character motivation and change, of cause and effect relationships, of underlying motivations, and of the overt manifestations of covert beliefs and desires. Each character is laid bare to some degree so that readers might explore their souls.

Finally, The Last Town on Earth possesses promising literary merit. Its descriptions, its actions, and its themes — all lend themselves to study as literary elements. For example, Mullen introduces Commonwealth as being down a road “where the trees grew taller still as if trying to reach the sun that teased them with the paucity of its rays. Douglas fir loomed over the rock-strewn road like two warring armies perched on opposing cliffs. Even those travelers who all their lives had been reminded of their insignificance felt particularly humbled by that stretch of road and the preternatural darkness that shadowed it” (3). The descriptions mirror the parallel plots of Commonwealth and Timber Falls, the parallel actions of Graham and Philip, and the parallel motivations of the men who guard the town and those men who sneak out for liquor and prostitutes. The irony of a town that established itself as a vestige of hope yet turns its back on the hopelessness of the flu introduces the theme of isolation and despair — one of many thematic elements worthy of exploration.

DISCUSSION AND WRITING

“Prologue” — The prologue introduces the ravages of the disease that has overtaken the logging town, Timber Falls. As an anonymous doctor and his volunteer nurses go from home to home, they find a family decimated by the disease — the surviving children of the home “too oddly dressed, dirty, wraithlike” (xii).

1. What is the name of the town the flu has attacked?
2. What is the situation revealed in the description of the town?
3. To what war do you believe the text refers when it says, “husbands fighting in France” (xii)?
4. Why have no medical personnel been to this particular part of town yet?
5. What attitude does the lack of medical attention in this area of town reveal?
6. What do the doctor and his staff find at the house they enter?
7. The Spanish flu seems to attack what age people most?
8. Describe the symptoms revealed in this episode.
9. What do the descriptions of the doctor reveal about the situation in the town?

Part One

“One” — Chapter One introduces the town of Commonwealth — a town fifteen miles from Timber Falls that has so far avoided the Spanish Flu and has barricaded itself against the world in order to preserve its immunity. Graham and Philip sit guarding the entrance to the town when an American soldier approaches the barricade. Tired, hungry, and apparently sick or injured, the soldier asks to be allowed into Commonwealth, but, Graham and Philip refuse him. The soldier approaches, and Graham shoots and kills him.

1. The very first paragraph of the chapter describes the road to Commonwealth. What does this description reveal about the town and its people?
2. The very first page tells the reader that the road has been blocked but does not reveal why or that the two men at the felled tree are guards. Why do you believe the author held back this information until later in the chapter?
3. What are the names of the two guards?
4. What is revealed about the two men initially? What do you find out about them as the chapter progresses? What do the actions of each man reveal about them before the chapter ends? What questions do you still have about who they are and what their relationship is?
5. Why/how is Commonwealth a unique town?
6. Both men are “damaged,” but only Graham’s “damage” is revealed. What is Graham’s physical damage? Why does the author fail to reveal Philip’s “damage”?
7. Who challenges the barricade?
8. Describe the soldier. What traits make Graham and Philip suspicious of his intentions?
9. What is revealed about the town’s decision to quarantine itself?
10. What happens to the soldier as he approaches?
11. What does the line “The grayness was anything and nothing” reveal (12)?
12. Why is Phillip’s rifle no longer cold?

“Two”— Chapter Two flashes back to the decision to quarantine the town. At the town meeting, readers learn about the make-up of the town and the divergent views of the townspeople. Readers learn how Charles Worthy’s family had come west, how Charles had broken with his family over the treatment of mill workers, and why Charles and his wife, Rebecca, had begun the town of Commonwealth.

1. Why is flashback an effective technique for Chapter Two?
2. What is Philip’s handicap?
3. What is Philip’s relationship to the Worthys?
4. What is Rebecca Worthy’s past?
5. How does this past impact her relationship with her husband, Charles? With Philip? With the other townspeople?
6. What is Charles Worthy’s position in the mill and in the town?
7. How did Charles Worthy’s family end up out west?
8. Why is the town of Everett significant to Charles Worthy? How does Everett create a parallel to Graham?
9. How did Charles and his brothers differ on matters of running the Everett mill?
10. What is the doctor’s name?
11. What does the doctor tell the group about the “new form of influenza” (19)?
12. What is Charles’ proposal for saving the town?
13. What issues are raised about Charles’ proposal?
14. Does Rebecca Worthy agree with her husband?
15. At the end of the meeting, Philip moves to sign up to be a guard. How does Rebecca react? How does Graham react? What does the contrast of reactions show?

“Three”— Chapter Three focuses on characters’ reactions to the shooting of the soldier. Philip cannot eat and cannot get thoughts of the soldier from his head. Rebecca blames herself for allowing Philip to be a guard and for allowing Commonwealth to become a police state. Charles believes that Graham did the right thing.

1. The chapter opens with Philip’s questions. What do these questions reveal about his reaction to killing the soldier?
2. What did Rebecca typically do on Wednesdays that the quarantine is making her miss?
3. What does Rebecca’s Wednesday schedule reveal about her?
4. In what war is the United States involved? What sacrifices that result from the war are people making on the home front?
5. What is the contrast between Philip’s birth mother and Rebecca, his adopted mother?
6. Why does Philip want to help bury the soldier?
7. What is the parallel between Rebecca’s sisters and Rebecca’s current situation?
8. What is Rebecca’s view of the war?
9. What is the contrast between Rebecca and her younger sister, Maureen?
10. Why is it ironic that Charles’ son is involved in killing the soldier?

“Four”— In Chapter Four, Philip goes shopping at Metzger’s general store. He comes across a townsman buying whiskey. Mrs. Metzger sends Elsie, her daughter, to help Philip with his bags. Elsie questions Philip about the shooting.

1. Describe Flora Metzger’s personality.
2. Based on this chapter, what role does Metzger’s store play in Commonwealth?
3. What purchase does Leonard Thibeault make? How is Flora’s reaction to him different from her reaction to her other customers?
4. Philip buys two bags of flour and cornmeal. Why? What does the purchase reveal about the future of the town?
5. What seems to be the relationship between Philip and Elsie Metzger?
6. What is revealed about Philip’s physical condition?
7. What does Elsie know about the shooting? How much does Philip reveal?

“Five”— In Chapter Five the town magistrates bury the soldier’s body.

1. How long do the townsmen wait to bury the body?
2. Why is Deacon called “Deacon”?
3. What do readers learn of Jarred Rankle’s past?
4. How do magistrates function in Commonwealth?
5. Graham digs like “a man possessed” (46). What does Graham’s style of digging reveal about his personality? About his reaction to the soldier’s shooting?
6. Why do the men not check for identification on the body?

“Six”— In Chapter Six Philip goes to see Graham. Philip wants to talk to Graham to make sure that Graham is okay after the shooting. Graham is quiet and distant but says nothing is wrong.

1. What do readers learn of Philip’s past in this chapter? How does this past affect Philip’s present actions/attitudes?
2. What role has Graham played in Philip’s life?
3. Why is it significant when Graham shows his maimed hand to Phillip?
4. How do the Worthy and Stone’s houses show the beliefs of the town?
5. What is Graham’s wife’s name?
6. What is Graham’s baby’s name?
7. Why is Graham and Philip’s conversation awkward?

“Seven”— Chapter Seven tells the story of Graham’s move west and his involvement in the Everett strike. Readers learn how Graham lost his finger in a work-related accident. Graham meets and falls in love with Tamara, who leads Graham into the workers’ movement. Tamara is killed in the “Everett Massacre.”

1. What prevents Graham from sleeping?
2. Graham thinks, “Ain’t nothing a man has can’t be taken away” (56). What do you think he means by that statement? Why is it the “Damnedest thruth there ever was” (56)?
3. Describe Graham’s life and experiences after he leaves his family in Kansas.
4. Graham describes Everett as “the playground of second-tier timber barons” (57). What does he mean by this description?
5. Why does Graham make the switch to sawyer ?
6. How did Graham lose his finger?
7. How does the fact that Graham has to work out a payment plan with the doctor to pay for the injury to his finger reflect on the status of the working men in timber mills?
8. How does Graham meet Tamara?
9. Tamara is a Wobbly. What is a Wobbly?
10. Describe the escalating violence in Everett.
11. Describe the events that happen to Graham and Tamara on the Verona.
12. How did the events at Everett impact Graham’s actions in Commonwealth? How do those events impact his attitude toward his family?

“Eight”— This short chapter lets readers see the attitudes of the townspeople of Commonwealth as rumors begin to spread. The town runs out of whiskey.

1. What kinds of rumors are spreading around Commonwealth?

“Nine”— Philip and his sister, Laura, talk about the rumors and truth of the flu. Philip is reminded of going to a movie before the quarantine and of the “Four-Minute Men” who stood up in the movie to encourage patriotism in America. Philips lets Laura borrow some war books.

1. About what rumor are Philip and Laura talking?
2. What does the reader learn about Elsie’s family’s nationality?
3. What does this knowledge reveal about the attitude of Americans during the war? About the attitude of Philip and Laura?
4. Why does the speech by the Four-Minute Man make Philip ashamed?
5. What does Philip believe Rebecca’s attitude is toward the Four-Minute Men?
6. What are Philip’s feelings about Elsie?
7. What is revealed about Philip when he tries to give Laura all of his war books and thinks that he will never read them again?

“Ten”— Charles and Rebecca argue about the decision to quarantine and its resulting actions. Both fear for Philip and his involvement. Jarred Rankle visits and talks to Rebecca about events.

1. What are Charles and Rebecca’s reactions to the shooting and to Philip’s involvement?
2. Do you think Rebecca blames Charles for these events? Why might she?
3. What seem to be Rankle’s political views?
4. Are they different or similar to Rebecca’s?
5. What happened to Rankle’s family?
6. How did Rebecca vote on the quarantine issue?

“Eleven”— The setting of this chapter shifts to Timber Falls. There, readers meet J.B. Merriwhether. J.B. has a son in the war and a daughter with the flu.

1. Who is J.B. Merriwhether?
2. What are the names of his son, wife, and daughter?
3. What do you learn about J.B.’s family?
4. How does J.B. make his living?
5. Why does J.B. know about the quarantine at Commonwealth?
6. What does this chapter reveal about the flu in Timber Falls?
7. The last line of this chapter says that J.B. steps back into “a world he had learned not to trust” (90). How might this line be a theme of the novel?

“Twelve”— Philip and Elsie talk. Elsie had been out walking and had seen the men burying the body. She questions Philip about what happened.

1. At what task is Philip working when Elsie comes to talk to him?
2. Why does Philip’s task seem odd? Why might he be working?
3. Why is Commonwealth without a minister?
4. What do readers learn about Philip’s mother’s death?
5. What is the rumor about Philip’s mother’s belief in God?

“Thirteen”— Mo, another mill worker and guard, and Philip are on guard duty. Mo leaves briefly to help a friend who is injured, leaving Philip alone when a second soldier arrives. Philip cannot shoot him and almost gets shot himself. Philip decides to hide the soldier in an empty, isolated house until he can determine what to do. Mo comes back, and Philip and the soldier become prisoners in the house.

1. At what job had Mo worked before timber?
2. What are the latest rumors about the war?
3. From where does Mo think these rumors come?
4. How does Mo think they will be able to tell when the war ends?
5. On what natural phenomena does Mo blame bad events?
6. Why does Mo leave Philip alone at their post?
7. How far is Commonwealth from the nearest town?
8. Why does Philip tell this soldier about the death of the other soldier?
9. Who shoots first — Philip or the soldier?
10. How does Philip “get the drop” on the soldier?
11. What does Philip decide to do with the soldier?
12. Do you think Philip made the right decision?
13. How does Philip end up trapped with the soldier?

Part Two

“One” — A group of men in Timber Falls meets — J.B. Merriwhether included. They are curious about Commonwealth. Readers learn of an incident at Fort Jenkins.

1. Why do the events of Chapter Thirteen offer an excellent place to stop and begin Part Two of the novel?
2. What do you believe motivated the author to shift focus to Timber Falls in this chapter?
3. What is the status of J.B.’s family?
4. As this chapter begins, where is J.B.? Why does he feel useful here and not at home?
5. Who summoned J.B. to this meeting?
6. Who else comes to this meeting? Identify each man and his position in the town.
7. What symbol in a home’s window tells of a son in the war? A death from the war?
8. How has the war affected the Winslow’s mill?
9. What is the American Protection League?
10. What suspicions do the men seem to have about Commonwealth?
11. What do you think happened at Fort Jenkins? What connection to the fort might you already know?

“Two”— Mo gets Doc Baines, Charles, Jarred Rankle, and Graham. They determine that they must leave Philip in the house with the soldier for two days to determine whether either is contaminated.

1. What is the irony of Philip’s situation?
2. How does the soldier react to Philip’s being locked in with him?
3. What are your initial impressions of the soldier?
4. Why does Graham not trust/respect Doc Baines?
5. What plans do Baines and Charles make for Philip’s imprisonment?
6. What explanation does the soldier give for being lost in the woods?

“Three”— Doc Baines stays up all night researching the flu. He has had contact with a former patient, now a doctor. Nothing Baines finds comforts him.

1. How are Doc Baines, Charles, and Rebecca reacting to Philip’s imprisonment?
2. Describe Doc Baines medical training.
3. What is Baines’ first name? Why does the author wait until now to mention that name and never use it again?
4. How has Baines tried to keep abreast of medical breakthroughs?
5. What major change(s) has Baines seen in his career?
6. What earlier plague does Baines remember?
7. What do readers learn of Baines’ personal life?
8. What does Baines find out from his former patient about the flu?
9. Where did the flu begin and how has it spread?
10. Is Baines sure of the precautions he has taken/the decisions he has made concerning the soldier and Philip?

“Four”— Charles and Rebecca argue over leaving Philip and quarantining the town.

1. What task is Charles trying to accomplish when Rebecca enters?
2. What are the two sides of their argument? With whom do you agree?
3. How long has it been since Charles found Philip?
4. What had Philip’s father done to him? Do you believe Charles sees his own current actions as similar to Philip’s father’s?
5. Why can Charles not finish the letter?

“Five”— Sleeping in isolation with the second soldier, Philip dreams of his past — of the events leading up to his being discovered by Charles Worthy. Fiona, Philip’s mother, had taken him to live with another of her lovers. This man, Carl, abruptly takes Philip and his mother away at night in a snowstorm. They crash. Philip is the only survivor.

1. Philip dreams of taking flight and then “hurtling toward something unknowable” (135). How is this dream significant to his past? His present?
2. What is Philip’s mother’s name?
3. What are Philip’s earliest memories of her?
4. What was the typical pattern of his life with his mother?
5. Why do you believe Uncle Ike’s wife called Fiona “a tramp” (136)?
6. With what man do Philip and Fiona live in Redmond, Washington?
7. Why do you believe the “family” had to leave Redmond? What evidence can you provide to motivate their hasty departure?
8. What causes the wreck?
9. What results from the wreck?

“Six”— In Chapter Six readers learn of Deacon’s past life as a Catholic seminary student.

1. Who is standing guard over Philip and the soldier in this chapter?
2. What significance does the description of the night’s beauty hold?
3. How old is Deacon?
4. How old was Deacon when he decided to become a priest?
5. What motivated Philip’s telling his parents he “heard the voice of God calling him” (143)?
6. Why does Deacon leave Seminary?
7. What is significant in the last line of the chapter — “the silence would follow him home” (144)?

“Seven”— In Chapter Seven, morning comes and Philip learns more about the soldier. Flu has indeed come to the soldier’s base. Philip gets the letter from Charles.

1. What does Philip’s awkwardness with the gun show about him?
2. What is stored in the house in which Philip and the soldier are imprisoned?
3. About how many men has Commonwealth sent to war? Does that number seem large or small?
4. What makes up the meal left for the men? Why is the sugar significant?
5. What is Philip’s attitude toward the soldier?
6. What seems to be the soldier’s attitude? Is either attitude surprising?
7. Why is the corn bread only for Philip?
8. What does Charles’ letter say?
9. What is Philip’s relationship with Charles like?
10. What does the soldier tell Philip about why he was lost in the woods?
11. What is the soldier’s name?
12. Has the soldier been exposed to the flu?
13. What is the soldier’s home?

“Eight”— This short chapter reveals a conversation between Charles and Graham at the mill. Graham wants time off work to serve full time as a guard.

1. What terrifies Charles?
2. Why does Charles regret having not been to church lately? What does the text mean when it says “an almost nostalgic need to subjugate his fears to something even greater, if such a thing existed” (155)?
3. What request does Graham make of Charles?
4. What motivates Graham’s request?
5. What seems to be Graham’s attitude toward Philip now? Toward Philip’s actions?
6. What decision of Doc Baines does Graham question? What motivates Graham’s mistrust?

“Nine”— Chapter Nine is a flashback to a church service before the quarantine. The town’s divergent attitudes toward the war are exposed. Ten men enlist. Others see the war as futile.

1. How long had Commonwealth existed when America entered WWI?
2. Does the youth of the town influence its attitudes?
3. How does the war impact Commonwealth’s business of producing lumber?
4. What should each mill worker have done to ensure that he was not avoiding the draft? Do you believe most of the men have done it? Why?
5. What is the minister’s name?
6. With what denomination does he associate?
7. What are the different opinions that exist in the town about church and this minister in particular?
8. How does a discussion of the war come about in church?
9. What are the different views held by the church-goers?
10. What is Walsh’s opinion?
11. What does he do to demonstrate his view?

“Ten”— At school, Elsie thinks about Philip and his situation. She writes and delivers a letter to him.

1. Who tells Elsie of Philip’s imprisonment?
2. Who runs the school?
3. What is Elsie’s position beyond student?
4. Who is on guard duty when Elsie delivers her letter?
5. After delivering the letter, what does Elsie do?
6. What is implied by the last line of the chapter — “The trail seemed darker as she walked back home” (170)?

“Eleven”— Philip and Frank (the soldier) pass time by playing cards. Philip learns more about Frank’s life. Elsie’s letter comes.

1. What do Philip and Frank use for chips in their card game?
2. What does Philip do with the rifle and pistol?
3. Why does Philip share his cornbread this time?
4. What is the name of Frank’s sweetheart back in Missoula?
5. What does Philip learn about Frank’s life before the war?
6. What does Philip learn about Frank’s life At Fort Jenkins?
7. What does Elsie’s letter say?
8. For what does C.O. stand?

“Twelve”— Leonard Thibeault is sick — or is it a dream. He isn’t sure.

1. What is wrong with Leonard Thibeault?
2. What does the final scene of this chapter — about tossing a ball with his dead cousin — tell readers about Leonard’s situation?

“Thirteen”— Graham spends a sleepless night. Readers learn about his relationship with Amelia and his grief over Tamara. He is very tired but does not sleep.

1. Why does Graham feel the responsibility for the town so personally?
2. What is Amelia’s father’s name?
3. What is implied about him and his relationship with Amelia?
4. How does Amelia react when she first sees Graham’s mangled hand? What does her reaction reveal about her? Why is the event so significant to Graham?
5. What is the name of Graham and Amelia’s baby?
6. Amelia knows that Graham’s silence has types? What types?

“Fourteen”— The group of men from Timber Falls comes to make trouble. Graham and Mo are on guard duty. They get Charles who assures the Timber Falls men that everything is fine in Commonwealth. The Timber Falls men imply that German spies might be in the woods. They refer to the incident at Fort Jenkins. Is the soldier in Commonwealth a spy?

1. What crisis has spread an alarm through the town?
2. Who comes to get Charles?
3. Who does Charles recognize from the Timber Falls group?
4. Who else makes up the Timber Falls group?
5. Of what crime does the Timber Falls group suspect men in Commonwealth?
6. What has happened at Fort Jenkins?
7. What does the discovery about Fort Jenkins imply about the captive soldier?

“Fifteen”— Charles, Rebecca, and the magistrates meet to discuss what the Timber Falls men (Miller) had said. They worry if the soldier is a spy. They stick to the original plan. Graham feels something coming.

1. Is Rebecca a magistrate? Why does she come to the meeting? Why do the magistrates allow her to come?
2. What issues are raised at this meeting?
3. What decision is made?
4. What is Rebecca’s view of the decision?
5. Does anyone’s opinion shock you?

“Sixteen”— Philip is released from the house, but Charles and Doc Baines believe the soldier does have something to hide. They decide to keep him locked up.

1. After Philip is released, how do Graham and Mo react to him?
2. What seems suspicious about Frank’s story?
3. What accusation does the soldier not deny?

Part Three

“One” — Timber Falls speculates about Commonwealth. J.B.’s daughter dies.

1. The section heading for Part Three says, “Sacrifice.” To what sacrifice is it referring? To what future sacrifice might it be referring?
2. What is the status of Timber Falls?
3. Why are the men suspicious of Commonwealth?
4. What specific aspect of Commonwealth do the men decide to investigate?
5. What has happened with J.B.’s daughter?

“Two”— Flu strikes Commonwealth. Doc Baines goes to see one sick husband. Then, he finds Leonard dead.

1. Who is the first sick man?
2. What is the story of his developing flu?
3. What are the symptoms of his illness?
4. With whom has the couple had contact?
5. How does Baines find out about Leonard?
6. What does Baines find at Leonard’s house?

“Three”— Philip wakes up in his own bed. He and Charles discuss the soldier and the town’s situation. Doc Baines arrives.

1. About what does Philip dream?
2. Who wakes him?
3. About what do Philip and Charles talk?
4. What does Philip say about Frank?
5. What has motivated Charles suspicions of the soldier?
6. Why has Doc Baines been running?

“Four”— Flu spreads quickly in Commonwealth. Elsie’s mother, Flo, gets sick. Graham blames “the spy.” He wants to do something about it.

1. Why is “forest fire” an appropriate way to describe how news of the flu spread through the town?
2. How does O’Hare respond to Philip?
3. How many of O’Hare’s men are missing from work?
4. What are the first signs of Flora’s illness?
5. Why does Philip feel responsible for the flu?

“Five”— In this brief chapter, Philip talks to Laura about his fear that it is his fault the flu is in Commonwealth.

1. At the beginning of the chapter, what thoughts push thoughts of flu and Frank from Philip’s head?
2. What does Philip’s discussion with Laura reveal about American suspicions of people of German descent?

“Six”— The flu spreads wildly. This chapter follows Doc Baines travels as he tries to stem the tide.

1. What is the status of Yolen when Doc Baines comes to check on him?
2. What signs of death does Doc Baines find?
3. Why is Yolen’s house being guarded?
4. Why has no one from the community come to check on Yolen and Jeanine?
5. Why is Flora Metzger a particular worry for Doc Baines?
6. What does he say they should do with the store? How might this decision impact the town?
7. Can Baines trace the path of infection from the flu? What does the answer imply about stopping it?
8. Of what do the logs bobbing in the water remind Baines?

“Seven”— Rumors spread — people kill dogs to stop the flu. Whiskey will stop it, some believe. The Worthys have a cellar with food stored.

1. What rumors spread?
2. What do the rumors reveal about the people?

“Eight”— Rebecca and Amelia go to pick at the communal garden. They find it ransacked.

1. What does the planting of the garden reveal about Commonwealth and its people?
2. What does the robbing of the garden reveal about Commonwealth and its people?
3. What does the last line of the chapter reveal?

“Nine”— Graham returns home briefly from his duties. He hears about the garden. He installs locks on the home’s doors. He makes a decision that there is something he can do to save the town.

1. What does the fact that houses in Commonwealth have no locks reveal about the town?
2. What does the fact that Graham installs locks reveal about how the town has changed? About how Graham has changed?
3. Graham tells Amelia he is going to see Mo. Is this story true?
4. What might Graham do to set things right?

“Ten”— More sickness. Men confront Philip after work. Philip runs into Elsie. They kiss. Philip heads for the storage building.

1. How many men are away from the mill with sickness?
2. How long does Doc Baines estimate the flu has been in Commonwealth?
3. How many have died so far?
4. What happens to Philip after work?
5. What is Philip accused of doing to Michael’s boy?
6. What do the men want to do with Philip?
7. What does Michael say? What does his response reveal about him? About the situation?
8. Where is Elsie headed when Philip runs into her?
9. What happens with Philip and Elsie in the store?
10. Why is Philip’s joy “tempered by guilt” (262)?

“Eleven”— Philip goes to talk to the soldier. Philip learns why Frank was really in the woods.

1. What does the darkness of the town symbolize?
2. What are the only sounds Philip hears?
3. Why is Philip glad to see Lightning on guard duty?
4. What news does Philip tell Frank?
5. Did Frank try to kill Philip in the woods?
6. Why is Frank running from the army?

“Twelve”— Frank tells the story of why he left his base. Frank came to the defense of a contentious objector and became part of a murder.

1. What is going on the first time Frank met the C.O.?
2. Why are the other soldiers abusing him?
3. Who seems to lead this abuse?
4. How does Frank describe his camp?
5. Who confronts Frank about not participating in abusing the C.O.?
6. What logic does Ollie use to justify his own attitude?
7. Why do C.O.’s object?
8. When Frank meets the C.O. in the mess hall, what does he discover about the man? His name? Anything else?
9. Describe the scene Frank encounters the next time he sees the C.O.? How is this beating different from the others?
10. How does Frank attempt to save Lyle?
11. What happens after Frank hits Sepenski?
12. How do Frank and Lyle escape the base?

“Thirteen”— Philip promises to get Frank out. Philip leaves to figure out how.

1. What does Philip think about Frank’s story?
2. Does Philip believe Frank? Why?
3. Frank prefaces his story by telling Philip, “I’m just like you” (285). Why do those words chill Philip? How are Philip and Frank alike?
4. What will Philip risk if he helps Frank?
5. Who might be Philip’s primary enemy?
6. What sound brings Philip back from his thoughtfulness in the swing?

“Fourteen”— Philip writes to Elsie and plans for Frank’s escape.

1. What does Philip say in his letter to Elsie?
2. Why do his words seem inadequate to him?
3. Why does Philip decide to wait a day to try to help Frank?
4. What is Philip’s plan?
5. Why does Philip return to the memory of Charles rescuing him from the wreck? Is there a connection to what Philip is planning?

“Fifteen”— Elsie’s mother gets worse.

1. What wakes Elsie?
2. What is the irony of Flora being unable to speak? What is the horror of it?

“Sixteen”— Graham kills Frank.

1. Why does Graham see himself as an instrument of God? Do you see him that way? Would Philip? Would anyone?
2. Whose horse does Graham have? What is its name? How is it misnamed?
3. Why does Graham believe that Doc Baines has given up?
4. What thoughts occupy Frank’s mind as he waits in darkness?
5. What does Frank hope his family can understand?
6. What about the C.O. angers Frank?
7. How does Graham kill Frank?
8. What are Frank’s final thoughts?
9. What do Graham’s thoughts of his father’s hogs reveal about his actions?
10. Graham believes the dying will stop now. Why? Will it really?
11. What about the horse is strange?
12. What was Mo’s role in Graham’s plan?
13. Why does Graham believe Rankle would not approve of his plan?

“Seventeen”— The Metzger’s store is ransacked. Floral dies. People see the empty store and almost panic. Rankle helps calm them. Charles decides to open the town.

1. How is Charles’ reality like his dreams?
2. What has happened at Metzger’s store?
3. Why does Charles resist the urge to put on his mask while talking to Metzger?
4. From where did the blood on Metzger’s shirt come?
5. What has happened with Flora? Why are these two events significant in their timing?
6. Charles tells Metzger that his neighbors will help him. What is the irony of that idea? What does the statement reveal about Charles?
7. Whom does Metzger blame for his plight?
8. What is the attitude of the townspeople who gather?
9. How does Rankle help disperse the crowd?
10. What decision does Charles make concerning the quarantine?

“Eighteen”— The decision is made to open the town but to close the mill to prevent the spread of the flu. The guards discover the prisoner’s “escape.” Philip visits the Metzgers, but Mr. Metzger dismisses him.

1. What does Rankle notice on Graham’s hand?
2. Who joins Rankle for guard duty and discovers the soldier missing?
3. What does Philip suspect when Charles says not to visit the Metzgers?
4. What decision about the mill does Doc Baines suggest?
5. How does Mr. Metzger respond to Philip’s visit?

“Nineteen”— Philip learns of the soldier’s escape from Charles. Philip goes to the storehouse and discovers evidence of Frank’s death. Rankle tells Philip not to confront Graham.

1. What are the possible impacts of closing the mill?
2. How does Philip react to Frank’s escape? Why does that reaction puzzle Charles?
3. As Philip heads to check the site of Frank’s escape, “The sky’s color was draining away, revealing the darkness that had been hiding behind the clouds, crouching in anticipation of the bitter black night to come” (315). What symbolism is in these lines? What foreshadowing?
4. Who is at the storehouse? Why?
5. What of Frank’s does Philip find? Why does this item make him suspicious?
6. What else does Philip find?
7. What does Rankle tell Philip not to do?
8. What is the significance of the last line of the chapter?

Part Four

“One” — J.B. Merriwhether’s son has died in France. J.B.’s wife has shut herself off from him. Joseph Miller comes to enlist J.B.’s assistance.

1. The section heading for Part Four says, “Specters.” To what is it referring?
2. What is the state of Violet Merriwhether? Why does her husband impact her in this way?
3. What has happened to the Merriwhethers’ son?
4. Of what does Joseph Miller’s arrival remind J.B.?
5. What does J.B. see as the irony of his prayers?
6. What connection does J.B. now have to Hightower? Why does this connection disconcert J.B.?
7. About what might Miller’s plan be?

“Two”— Philip has the flu. He confronts Graham, and, in their confrontation, coughs in Graham’s face.

1. What is wrong with Philip?
2. Where does Philip go from his sickbed?
3. With what does Philip confront Graham?
4. Why does Graham say he did what he did?
5. Of what do the two accuse each other? Do you see truth in Graham’s accusation? Do you see truth in Graham’s defense of himself?
6. How does Graham react to Philip’s cough?

“Three”— Elsie comes to the window of Philip’s sickroom and writes him messages. Charles discovers that men have been sneaking off to Timber Falls and probably brought the flu. Philip sees Frank and his mother on a train, but Philip gets off of the train.

1. Examine the metaphor of the train ride in this chapter. What does the ride represent? Who is on the train?
2. Is the scene with Graham a dream?
3. Is the scene with Elsie a dream?
4. What has actually brought the flu to Commonwealth?
5. In his dream, what does Philip discuss with Frank?
6. Who else does Philip see on the train?
7. What is the significance of Philip getting off of the train?

“Four”— The flu abates. A little boy sees the specters gather. Graham contemplates his deed.

1. How much time has passed since flu came to Commonwealth?
2. How many people have died?
3. Who has begun helping Baines with his rounds? Why?
4. Who is the first to see the specters? What do you believe the specters are?
5. Has Graham or his family become ill?
6. Does Graham feel justified in what he did?
7. When Amelia looks out the window, she sees the year’s first snow. What does Graham see? Do you find this difference significant?

“Five”— Sheriff Bartrum’s group from Timber Falls (the specters) arrives and begins going door to door looking for draft evaders. They find a “slacker” whose wife sends for Charles Worthy. Philip recovers. Elsie is sick.

1. Why are Bartrum and the men from Timber Falls in Commonwealth?
2. Who is the first man challenged by the Timber Falls men?
3. What do they discover about this man?
4. How is J.B. acting? What do his actions reveal about his attitude?
5. How many men have come from Timber Falls?
6. Who is the first slacker they find?
7. How does his wife respond to her husband’s arrest?
8. What is the status of Philip? Laura? Elsie?

“Six”— Charles confronts the Timber Falls men. Rankle is arrested, as is Deacon. The men come for Graham.

1. How do the Timber Falls men differ in their motivations for arresting the Commonwealth men?
2. What action of Charles Worthy shows the urgency of the situation?
3. Why had Charles allowed his men not to enlist or get deferments as they should have?
4. Why has Corinne Hunt helped Rankle through the flu?
5. Why does Rankle know Bartrum? What does this knowledge imply about Bartrum’s motivation?
6. What can Philip still see on his window?
7. Why does Philip believe he has an obligation to Graham?
8. What develops with J.B.’s role in the arrests?
9. From where does Hightower recognize Graham?

“Seven”— Philip saves Graham by killing Sheriff Bartrum. They run the Timber Falls men out of town.

1. Describe the events that unfold at Graham’s house?
2. Why does Philip see shooting Bartrum as “unimpeachable” (374)?
3. What does Graham confess to Miller? What threat does he make?
4. Who does Philip find among the men he frees from Miller’s truck? Why does Philip believe this man would be better off in jail?

“Eight”— The book ends with Philip leaving Commonwealth, accompanied by Charles and Graham.

1. How does Philip feel about his fate?
2. What does the snowstorm do for Commonwealth? How is it symbolic?
3. What happened to Elsie?
4. When was the armistice declared? What is the irony of this event?
5. What do Rebecca’s actions say about her and how the events of the book affected her?
6. What do Doc Baines’ records show about the flu in Commonwealth?
7. What do the vigilantes find when they try to attack the men who brought flu to Commonwealth? What does this discovery say about justice?
8. What is Charles’ plan for Philip?
9. How does killing Bartrum impact Philip? Why?
10. What will Graham do?
11. Why does Philip feel truly alone? Why is he unafraid?
12. Do you find the ending of the book satisfactory?
13. What does the future hold for the main characters?

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES

1. Examine the parallel plots of Commonwealth and Timber Falls. Trace these plots on separate lengths of paper and connect them when the plots connect. Examine the characters in each town in the same way. Are there connections between these characters? Do these connections help explain the characters’ motivations?

2. Examine the conflicts at work in this novel. The novel contains man versus man, man versus nature, man versus society, man versus self, and man versus God conflicts. Major and minor characters enter these conflicts. Writing assignments might examine the impact these conflicts have on the characters as well as the motivation the conflicts have on the action of the plot.

3. Interviews may be impossible considering the time frame of the novel, but students could interview the children of people who lived through the 1918 flu epidemic and/or World War One and remember how that epidemic influenced the later lives of those who lived through it. Interviews with war veterans from any war could shed light on issues of the novel such as conscientious objectors, war’s horrors, etc.

4. Examine family relationships. Philip’s life with the Worthys is very different than his life with his mother. Examine Philip’s relationships; how are his relationships shaped by his past? Examine the issues of child neglect/abuse and adoption and foster care. How are these still major issues in today’s world?

5. Examine current newspapers or magazines for articles concerning modern plagues — the possible bird flu, the spread of AIDS. What has been done to stop the spread of AIDS? What issues still exist? What is being done to stem the spread of a future pandemic? What varying opinions exist?

6. Examine the changes in Philip’s character. Construct a character chart in which you show the ways in which he changes throughout the text.

7. Research one of the social or political issues raised in the book. In a presentation for your class, profile Woodrow Wilson, the Everett Massacre of 1916, the Industrial Workers of the World, etc.

8. Research the activities of the “home front” in World War One or any war. How has people’s work at home contributed to American success in battle? How has citizen opposition to the war affected war efforts?

9. Analyze Commonwealth as a setting. How does the isolation of the town reflect the theme of the text? Make a drawing of this setting to demonstrate its significance to the plot.

10. Examine the themes of the novel — isolation, man’s inhumanity to man, family relationships, the futility of human conflict, etc. Trace one of the themes through the events of the book. Trace a character’s encounters with a particular theme.

BEYOND THE BOOK

1. Read and compare The Last Town on Earth to Albert Camus’ The Plague. Compare the settings, the plots, the themes, and the characters. Parallels exist in the reactions of characters, the isolation of the towns, the attempts to control the epidemic, the desperation of both those within and outside of the towns.

2. Examine the history of the logging industry in the United States. Topics can include the development of logging techniques, conservation and exploitation of the environment. Classes can plant trees to commemorate the study of this text.

3. Viewing movies that show the time period of this novel can provide enrichment. Movies such as Gallipoli, John Huston’s A Farewell to Arms, John Ford’s What Price Glory, and All Quiet on the Western Front provide theatrical views of the First World War.

4. Trace the development of the bird flu. Where has it already developed? What has been its movement and progression? Trace bird migration patterns. What do these patterns tell you about the future of bird flu?

5. Examine the actual events that inspired this book. In addition to the flu itself, the author gives reference materials for towns that attempted to isolate themselves, for the actual events of the war, for the real Everett, Washington.

OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST

The Plague by Albert Camus

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemmingway

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby

Lumberjack by William S. Crowe

Mill Town: A Social History of Everett, Washington, from Its Earliest Beginnings on the Shores of Puget Sound to the Tragic and Infamous Event Known as the Everett Massacre by Norman H. Clark

A World without War: How U.S. Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I by Frances H. Early

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

PBS examines the 1918 flu on The American Experience — includes teacher’s guide and other materials on the movie (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/influenza/ )
Arlington National Cemetery World War One Memorial (http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/ww1-mem.htm )

ABOUT THIS GUIDE

This teacher's guide was written by David Corley, who teaches high school English in South Carolina. His experience is with many different levels of students in grades 9-12. He has also taught courses for adult education, college, and graduate-level students.

Download a PDF of the Teacher's Guide

  • The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
  • July 31, 2007
  • Fiction - Historical
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $15.00
  • 9780812975925

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