Novel set in Stanwood-like town prompts discussion among hundreds of readers

STANWOOD — It’s autumn in a mill town about 30 miles north of Everett.

The United States is fighting a controversial foreign war. Labor strikes and tough economic times are in the news. On top of that, a deadly influenza epidemic is fast approaching.

The uninfected community of Commonwealth votes to quarantine itself, and two young men armed with guns are sent to the outskirts of town to keep others out. When a hungry, sick soldier shows up asking for help, the guards are forced to make a difficult decision.

Fast forward from 1918 to the present.

The novel “The Last Town on Earth,” its local setting and what happens to the people in the fictional town of Commonwealth are topics of discussion among hundreds of readers participating in the current Sno-Isle Libraries program called Stanwood-Camano Together We Read.

Stanwood Mayor Dianne White has read the book and Fire Chief Darin Reid recommends it as a good study of the emotions of people in crisis.

Librarian Leslie Moore says about 300 copies of the book are in constant circulation and bookstore owner Kristine Kaufman is having a hard time keeping the novel in stock for local book groups.

At Stanwood High School, where more than 100 books are circulating, many seniors are studying the novel in class.

“People are really excited about this program, and the book is what they’re talking about,” Moore said. “That’s the whole idea. The project is unbelievably successful. It’s about the celebration of books and of reading together.”

Now that the fall rains have come, it’s a great time to curl up with the novel, participate in book discussions and come out to see author Thomas Mullen when he comes to town Nov. 12, Moore said.

At the Stanwood Library, Moore said she hears a variety of reactions to the historical novel. In particular, many readers are trying to figure out where Commonwealth might be. Some guess Darrington or somewhere east of Stanwood on the Stillaguamish River. Others think it could be along the Skagit River near Conway or Sedro-Woolley.

“I have to remind them that this is a work of fiction,” she said. “But it is fun to guess.”

Many other communities around the country have done a similar reading project, Kaufman said.

“The Last Town on Earth” was one of the bookstore owner’s favorite reads last year, and Kaufman said she was enthusiastic that it was selected for the local reading project.

The Snohomish County labor movement history in the story has been of interest to readers, who also tell Kaufman they appreciate the way the author, who hails from the East Coast, has captured the feel of the county.

“Mullen is not a Northwest writer, but I was pleasantly surprised at the way he wrote about the environment,” Kaufman said. “I’m eager to meet him and hear how he developed an affinity for the area.”

May Palmer, 75, a longtime Sno-Isle Libraries volunteer who lives on Camano Island, admits that she doesn’t count the novel among the best books she’s ever read.

“It’s rather depressing, but it was a good choice for the reading project. It appeals to all ages and the moral dilemmas could apply today,” Palmer said. “Would you kill someone to protect your family?”

Kyle Murray, 18, a senior in Becky Dartnall’s advanced placement English class, said he had a hard time with that question while reading the book.

“The main characters are about my age, so that made it easier for me to get into it, and I thought about what I would do if I were in that situation,” Murray said. “I don’t usually read that genre, but I liked the concept of a town trying to save itself and the struggles they went through.”

Classmate John Mighell, 17, agrees.

“It’s a good book and it’s definitely relevant to our times,” Mighell said.

School librarian JoAnn Olsson, who served on the committee that chose the novel for the reading program, convinced Mighell to do his senior project on the 1918 flu epidemic that plays a big role in the story. Mighell plans to make it his project presentation on Nov. 19 during a panel discussion about crisis preparedness by emergency services personnel.

Fire Chief Reid also is set to be part of that panel discussion, titled Coming Together in Times of Crisis.

“The book did leave an impact,” the chief said. “In Stanwood, where we’ve been planning for a pandemic for some time, it’s good for us to read.”

If faced with a public health crisis, the city would imitate the characters of Commonwealth only in that it would close its schools, movie theaters and other gathering places, Reid said.

“People in 1918 were more apt to survive on their own as opposed to today when we depend so much on outside resources,” Reid said. The current emergency preparedness advice is that families store food, water and other supplies for seven days, he said.

“The Last Town on Earth” is a cautionary tale, Reid said.

“The best decision in an emergency may not have the best outcome,” he said. “We don’t deal with disasters every day, and the book did a good job of reminding us to think twice.”

Reporter Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427 or gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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