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I haven't written fan mail since I was around 10, and apparently Bo Duke did not actually live in Hazard County. Now I'm working on my letter to Thomas Mullen. The author's ability to create such texture with the layering of context, setting, conflict, and characters (within a very confined setting and a small cast of unique characters) allowed me to appreciate this well-crafted novel on two different levels.
The act of the small town quarantining itself from the flu (and the war) can never be proven as hubris or selfless humility. The characters' internal and external conflicts are never proven as perception or reality. The novel, then, is an engaging read; I felt like the plot could not continue without my participation. As I writer, I was awed by the consistency of the tightness of the plot and the comprehensive creation of the characters made Commonwealth a real world, populated with people I cared about.
Mullen's story is painful at times. A lot of times. But this is still the most fun I've had with a book in a long while.
11 of 11 people found this review helpful
A very nicely written historical novel set in the American northwest during the 1918 flu epidemic. The town of Commonwealth is a small, backwoods mill town, founded by an idealistic mill owner and settled by a variety of workers, mostly fleeing from union strife and harder conditions in other mill towns. Their pleasant, egalitarian little town lives in peaceful isolation except for the lumber they send downriver, until the coming of World War I and the draft, and then the influenza.
Thomas Mullen weaves many issues into this novel. By 1918, the Great War was well underway and thousands of Americans had already died in Europe, but it was not universally popular. There was a strong anti-war sentiment, but thanks to laws passed by Congress and President Wilson, it had become effectively illegal to protest against the war. This was also a time of violent labor strife, with workers fighting for better wages and safer conditions. Marxism, socialism, and anarchism were all popular in many circles. When the war came, business interests took the opportunity to label unionists and other civil rights agitators as unpatriotic and undermining the war effort.
Commonwealth, "the last town on Earth," is a place that many people fled to to escape these troubles. Many of its male residents did not enlist for the draft. There are socialists and war protestors among them. No one cares much, except for a few rival mill owners in neighboring towns.
Then comes the flu. It's been decimating towns across the country. Commonwealth's leaders decide to quarantine themselves: let no one in or out of the town until they think the flu has passed. (Mullen based this on rumors that some towns tried this in 1918, though apparently none were really successful.) They post guards to keep visitors out -- with guns if necessary. Then a soldier comes out of the woods, begging for food and shelter, and beginning a series of events that brings tragedy to the town.
This isn't a book with a very happy ending, but everything follows logically from the choices people make, and the plotting just flows sensibly and smoothly. Violence happens, and there are consequences. No one gets away clean. Most of the time, you can understand all sides in the various conflicts.
Mullen populates Commonwealth with a variety of characters, pausing the story to tell the histories of several of them. So this is also a somewhat leisurely book in that it's not non-stop action, though the story does move right along between brief passages of exposition.
Great characterization and an interesting story with fine historical details. Highly recommended.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful