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by Thomas Mullen

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 1-4000-6520-8
Publisher: Random House

A progressive community buckles under a double whammy: the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and the hatreds stirred by American participation in WWI.

Deep in the evergreens north of Seattle, a company town revolves around its timber mill. Owner Charles Worthy founded Commonwealth in 1916, and two years later, the town is thriving. The workers own their homes and set the rules, dispensing with police. After nearby Timber Falls is hit by the flu, a majority of Commonwealth’s residents decide to quarantine the town. Armed volunteers guard the one access road. Worthy’s adopted son, 16-year-old Philip, is on guard duty with Graham, an older man he regards as a big brother, when a disheveled soldier emerges from the woods and ignores orders to stop. Graham shoots him dead. Some days later, Philip is the lone sentry when a second soldier appears. After a skirmish, Philip and the soldier are detained by another guard, also deemed a possible carrier. Meanwhile, Commonwealth has its first flu death: a Canadian who snuck into Timber Falls for some liquor. The sickness travels with astonishing speed; fear and suspicion infect the town along with the epidemic. As supplies dwindle, the store and community gardens are plundered. Mullen has a good premise for a disaster story, but a fatal weakness for melodrama. Graham kills the imprisoned soldier, believing him to be the original carrier. Philip, back home but now stricken himself, rises from his sickbed to confront Graham, then a delegation of lawmen and goons from Timber Falls forces its way into town to arrest draft-dodgers, including the sick and contagious.

Mullen’s debut gets mileage out of the gruesome epidemic and contains some interesting historical nuggets, but it fails to mesh its grim subject matter with convincing individual narratives.