Thursday, March 27, 2008

A novel of reverse quarantine

Finally got around to reading The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen. The novel is set in the fictional timber town of Commonwealth, Washington, during the flu outbreak of 1918*. It's the story of how a community founded on a socialist/organized labor vision decides to shut itself off from the rest of the country, in hopes of self-preservation. (Some towns actually tried this, it turns out.) I was expecting a story about quarantine, and hoping for some grist about public health ethics in the case of a pandemic, but the book actually offers more than that. It's chock-full of moral dilemmas and questions of duty, in fact. It's a quiet, beautifully written book, not a thing overdone about it.

Set against the background of the First World War, Last Town raises questions about how individuals and communities make decisions when we fear for our safety and the welfare of our loved ones. I don't want to give too much away, but the flu isn't the only threat the people of Commonwealth face. The book made me wonder where, exactly, lies the line between self-preservation and harming others, either directly or by refusing to aid them.

Want more? You can listen to NPR's Liane Hansen talk with Mullan about the book on Weekend Edition.
*That was the epidemic that killed about 100 million people worldwide, and (unusually so) it was more deadly in the healthy young and middle aged, rather than babies and elderly people. If you wanna know more about that, I recommend The Great Influenza, by John Barry, and -- for those with a shorter attention span -- Flu, by Gina Kolata.


Anonymous said...

A similar theme was explored in Geraldine Brooks' brilliant Year of Wonders. I recommend it highly and look forward to reading Mullen's take on it.

Sue Trinidad said...

Yes, yes! Year of Wonders is fantastic, and I am glad you added it here, Anony. Thanks!