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Town on Earth
by a little-known historical footnote
regarding towns that quarantined themselves
during the virulent 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
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
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
arrives 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.
Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth
won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for
Best Historical Fiction in 2007.
biannual award of The Society of American
Historians, the prize is given "to
honor works of literary fiction that
significantly advance the historical
In your opinion, was this book a
quarantine is rife with moral
ramifications and consequences.
Was the decision reasonable? What
would you have done?
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
flu often caused its victims to
experience delusions. What other examples
of delusion, literal or figurative, can
you find throughout the novel?
is Frank’s significance? Why does
Philip grow so attached to him?
the relationship between Frank and the
C.O. resonate with Philip and Graham’s
relationship? If so, how?
you surprised by Philip’s recovery? Why
do you think Mullen allows him (and the
rest of the Worthy family) to survive?
has Philip developed by the end of the
novel? Has his character progressed or
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?
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 or understandable?
what ways does Thomas Mullen use
foreshadowing throughout the novel?
gauze mask has a ubiquitous presence
throughout the story. What is its
prominent motif throughout the novel is
that of starting over after experiencing
loss. Bearing this in mind, is your
interpretation of the ending optimistic
you have responded to the crisis more
like Philip or like Graham?
the H1N1 flu had been more virulent,
could a similar quarantine have happened
in 2009 or 2010?
What foreshadows of this
possibility have you encountered?
Adapted from http://www.randomhouse.com