Hannibal Free Public Library

 Last Town on Earth

Thomas Mullen

January 25, 2010

Inspired 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 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 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.  


  1. Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 2007.  A biannual award of The Society of American Historians, the prize is given "to honor works of literary fiction that significantly advance the historical imagination."  In your opinion, was this book a worthy prize-winner?
  1. Commonwealth’s quarantine is rife with moral ramifications and consequences.  Was the decision reasonable? What would you have done?
  1. 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?
  1. The flu often caused its victims to experience delusions. What other examples of delusion, literal or figurative, can you find throughout the novel?
  1. What is Frank’s significance? Why does Philip grow so attached to him?
  1. Does the relationship between Frank and the C.O. resonate with Philip and Graham’s relationship? If so, how?
  1. Were you surprised by Philip’s recovery? Why do you think Mullen allows him (and the rest of the Worthy family) to survive?
  1. How has Philip developed by the end of the novel? Has his character progressed or regressed?
  1. 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?
  1. 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 or understandable?
  1. In what ways does Thomas Mullen use foreshadowing throughout the novel?
  1. The gauze mask has a ubiquitous presence throughout the story. What is its symbolic significance?
  1. 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?
  1. Would you have responded to the crisis more like Philip or like Graham?
  1. If 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