It’s 1918, and the mill town of Commonwealth has shut itself off from the world as Spanish flu spreads. Armed men guard the town day and night to keep outsiders who may be contagious away. When two soldiers from a nearby base try to come in, all hell breaks loose.
The main character is a teenage boy named Phillip, son of the town founder, and unable to enlist because of a leg injury. Phillip is on guard duty with his friend Graham when the first soldier arrives, and as bad luck would have it, he’s on guard alone when the second arrives. Phillip’s actions drive the narrative, and he’s a likable protagonist. The flashback to how he hurt his leg is pretty horrific, as is a flashback to what Graham was doing before he came to Commonwealth.
This is a strange little book. I read it because I thought it would be a fictionalized account of the Spanish flu, and it was, a little. It’s also about the conscientious objectors to World War I, and unions, mills, and socialism. If I’d known what it was really about, I never would’ve picked it up because I would’ve said none of those things interested me. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t know since I liked this book.
Other than the influenza pandemic, World War I has never been a historical period that I’m particularly interested in, but I think I learned a lot from this book. I’d never heard of the American Protection League, or Wobblies, or “slackers.” The Last Town on Earth isn’t an instant classic or anything, but it’s a pretty good book.