It is the autumn of 1918 and a world war and an influenza epidemic rage outside the isolated utopian logging community of Commonwealth, Wash. In an eerily familiar climate of fear, rumor and patriotic hysteria, the town enacts a strict quarantine, posting guards at the only road into town. A weary soldier approaches the gate on foot and refuses to stop. Shots ring out, setting into motion a sequence of events that will bring the town face-to-face with some of the 20th-century’s worst horrors. Publishers Weekly
Over the past few weeks, Think in the Morning has posted on five literary accounts by authors who lived through the 1918 pandemic. Next we discuss a novel by Thomas Mullen from 2006, nearly a century after that deadly pandemic. The book is historical fiction and covers a number of political issues and events including the Everett Massacre that resulted from the labor tensions in the Pacific Northwest and the world war. As we write on this Memorial Day weekend, the tragic and costly effects of war are on our mind. Imagine how much worse it must have been to have a worldwide health crisis coincide with a world war as happened in 1918. Our concern here is with the author’s description of the influenza crisis and how it bears on current events. This is not to in any way diminish the horrors of the Great War or other historical events from those years but we must leave those topics to another time.
In an interview with NPR, the author explains his purpose for writing the book:
The real reason I wanted to write this book is when I found out that some towns had done this, I immediately imagined a situation where two men are standing guard and they’re confronted by a lost stranger. And the man says that he’s cold and he’s hungry and he needs food and shelter, and he’s begging them for aid. So what do they do? And this moral dilemma that they’re confronted with I thought was something that I wanted to explore in fiction, because it calls into question a lot of our moral guidelines, and it points to the way in which we sometimes compromise our moral guidelines in order to protect our self-interest. I mean, do the guards let this man in and help him? Do they do the charitable thing? Or do they say, I’m sorry, we’re worried about the flu; we don’t want to risk infection; you’re just going to have to stay out in the woods and die? And that brings up a lot of questions about how societies work and the compromises that we make and what types of societies we’re left with as a result.
We will mix a number of quotations from the book with events today that echo in the time of COVID 19. Obviously things are much different. There is no world war on today. We are much more closely connected with each other in numerous ways, not the least of which is the ubiquitous impact of technology on all fronts. Travel is far more widespread and faster. Scientific knowledge and medical knowledge have advanced yet many of the same questions arise today as arose then. Most important for our concerns here is that human nature remains much the same and leads to similar mistakes and dilemmas now as it did then.
We see much of the story through the eyes of 16-year old Philip Worthy, the adopted son of Charles Worthy who, together with his liberal wife Rebecca, was the visionary founder of Commonwealth. At a crucial point in the story, Philip learns an important lesson that perhaps we all learn at some point in our lives.
It had occurred to Philip that every decision made by the town since the quarantine began had been somewhat selfish. They’d placed themselves on a pedestal above all outsiders, holding their value to be superior on pain of death … the quarantine designed to block out the flu had only succeeded in cutting off the town from its previous ideals of right and wrong. It was a town in full eclipse, and Philip would have to navigate through the dark by himself.
The fictional town of Commonwealth opts for self-quarantine to prevent the deadly “Spanish flu” from infecting its residents. Similar decisions are made today by countries, states, counties, cities, and even (or especially) small rural communities. Is such self-isolation possible, feasible and is it the right thing to do? What about the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Will both residents and outsiders abide by the rules and what if they don’t? None in Commonwealth knew the answers, but the residents decide to block the road to the town and to erect a sign and to post guards anyway.
The sign you passed explained things — this town is unaffected by the influenza, and it’s our intention to keep it that way. We mean no disrespect to you gentlemen, but we know how many people in Timber Falls and the surrounding towns have the Spanish flu and are dying from it. Until the epidemic has passed, no one can enter this town.”
In neighboring communities restrictions have been imposed to limit the spread of the flu but these communities remain open.
“I heard in Seattle they aren’t even letting people go outside without masks on,” Elsie said. “If you don’t have a mask, the trolley won’t pick you up. You can even get arrested for it.”
“They’ve canceled school in most towns, and closed any other places people get together.”
In the neighboring town of Timber Falls, J. B. Merrriwhether of Merriwhether’s First Bank sees his world collapsing around him. His daughter is dying of the flu and his son is in harms way fighting in the war overseas. Business as usual is no longer possible.
He couldn’t believe how many people had succumbed. Mayors throughout Washington were closing dance halls and forbidding theater owners to run their reels, banning public gatherings for fear of contagion. J.B. had kept the bank open — how could the pillar of a town close? — but within days, all of his employees had called in sick. For the past week he had been the only man in the building, helping the dwindling number of customers who came in each day. It seemed like half the town was sick, and the other half was home caring for them.
Feeling useless, J. B. decides to support the troops by selling the Liberty Bonds pitched by the Four-Minute Men. (These annoying salesmen are described in many of the literary works we’ve reviewed.)
So he had driven all over Timber Falls and the neighboring towns, but in two days he’d barely sold any. Sometimes he heard coughing or moaning from within houses he approached, and sometimes, after his knock, there would be footsteps approaching the door. The footsteps would stop and he would wait, but in most instances, no one would answer. He would knock again and the footsteps would recede, their gentle sound fading beneath the percussive assault of more coughing.
At first, things seem to be going in the right direction in the small community.
There was no war, no pestilence. People around the globe were dying, dying from flu and pneumonia and aerial bombings and bayonets, but in Commonwealth, the last town on earth, people were safe. This was the place to run to, and they were already here. All they could do was wait.
Unfortunately waiting proved to be more difficult and less effective than first imagined. The influenza arrived in the town taking the residents by surprise, first in the local grocery store and then spreading quickly everywhere.
But now that Flora Metzger was ill, and so many people had come through her store the day before — signing the ledger book with her pen, standing there breathing while she went on and on with one of her stories — there no longer seemed a point to tracing the flu’s spread.
There were already too many sick people to see in one day, Banes explained. Even when he did see people, there was little he could do. The reality was that the numbers were increasing steadily, and the only thing that might slow the progression of the epidemic was to insist that everyone stay home to avoid contagion.
A different kind of plague—fear, anger, doubt and recrimination—invaded the small community. Things immediately began to go wrong.
… the town, having quarantined itself for over two weeks now, was particularly ill equipped to deal with the flu’s onslaught.
Rumors began to fly:
Point is, dogs can spread germs as well as anybody else.”
“Whiskey, you say?” “Yep A small glass of the stuff, every morning. That’ll keep the flu away.”
“What’s that around your neck? ” “Shut up.” “No, what is it?” “Garlic.” “Garlic?” “My wife’s idea. Says it’ll keep me healthy.” “Does it work?” “I don’t know. We’ll find out, I guess.”
“Y’all should stop talking so much. Voices spread germs.”
The only doctor in the town became overwhelmed.
“Are you not even going to go in and examine them?” The lamp cast an orange hue on Doc’s face, throwing shadows beneath his brow and nose and chin and frown. “I shouldn’t. This flu is so contagious that even doctors and nurses who’ve protected themselves have become ill and spread it to others. As much as I want to help them, I fear I’d only make things worse for everyone else.”
The symptoms were as ghastly as they were widespread. Some victims suffered nosebleeds that, combined with their coughs, often left them choking on their blood — which would explain the mess Banes had discovered in Leonard’s room. Before noon Doc’s shirt was stained by several patients’ bloody coughs; he stopped at home to change, to avoid carrying the contagion farther in his travels.
Many people were nauseated, vomiting into buckets that their aggrieved family members could not empty quickly enough. Others had earaches and dizziness from middle ears so inflamed that Doc had already used his needles to drain the pus from four pairs of ears that day — finally, something he could do to alleviate symptoms, relieve pain. Hopefully that would quell the pounding, he told them, would cause the earth to stop wobbling around them,would ease the headaches so severe that more than one person had voiced fears that his brain was somehow growing beyond the capacity of his skull.
The symptoms were frightening and death often came quickly.
The first sign of danger was the speed of contagion. But the symptoms rivaled the breadth of the epidemic in their horror. Even if only a few people had suffered this disease, it still would have been a terror to be scarcely believed. Men bled from the nose, from the ears, some even from their eyes. Autopsies of dead soldiers revealed that their lungs were blue and heavy, thick with fluid, sometimes thick with blood. Victims became cyanotic, starved of oxygen — parts or all of their bodies turned blue, sometimes such a dark hue that the corpses of white men were indistinguishable from those of coloreds. They were literally drowning to death in their own fluids.
In spite of being overwhelmed, Doctor Banes perseveres. He soon realizes the magnitude of the problem.
The town had one undertaker, a elderly man named Krugman … As Banes rode in his carriage along the river, he saw the many logs bobbing on the water’s surface like corpses, and he realized he should tell Charles to set aside some of the lesser pieces of wood. The town would need coffins—many of them.
Mullen holds his readers’ attention. At one point a group of heavy-handed outsiders force their way into Commonwealth to search for and arrest draft dodgers and to “make sure their fellow Americans weren’t fomenting dissent, interfering with the draft, or disparaging the war effort.” Violence appears inevitable and it comes with devastating effect.
Violence in one form or another occurs so regularly in the book that one can’t help but doubt the benevolence of human nature. Yet, in spite our failures, most somehow keep on going. Early in the book, Philip ponders a question that recurs all the way through.
He wondered if there was some end point, some line in the dirt, some amount of pain and suffering beyond which one could never continue.
The answer, of course, is no. Until you stop.