In the fall of 1918, the Great War in Europe is winding down and peace was on the horizon. The Americans had joined in the fight, bringing the Allies closer to victory against the Germans. Then in pockets across the globe, something deadly erupts: an outbreak of influenza, far more deadly than a cold.
Charles Worthy, founder and mayor of the sawmill town of Commonwealth about fifty miles northeast of Seattle, institutes mandatory quarantine on anyone entering, especially when he finds out that buried beneath the calm veneer, the dreaded flu has begun to
wreak havoc upon the neighboring towns.
Phillip, Charles sixteen-year-old adopted son, is given the job of guarding the main road into the village.
Along with his best friend, Graham, they stand at the entrance rifles cocked, determined to shut out any disease and pestilence.
When a tired, hungry stranger approaches, a lonely and battered soldier, Phillip and Graham warn him not to come any further.
This man could be on the verge of becoming sick; he could be carrying the flu in his blood and lungs. He could stroll into Commonwealth and soon people would be coughing, in bed with fever, hallucinating as their foreheads burned and "their eyes clouded over and their insides flooded with mucus and death." They have to stop him.
In a panic, the boys end up shooting him. Charles, in consultation with Doc Banes, instructs the boys to say nothing, and when Elise, his sweetheart, quizzes Philip, he tells her that the soldier was sick and they made him leave. "We fired a couple of warning shots and he got the message." No need to worry everyone and complicate things; only the guards need to know.
But Philip and Graham's actions set off an irreparable chain of events. The town begins to unravel, the stress of the quarantine shattering the inhabitants, sending them headlong into a battle not just with the possibility of the flu epidemic but also with the needs of the outside world and of the Great War, where it is so easy "for home and family and love to vanish forever."
As fear and alarm breeds throughout Washington State, the authorities begin closing dance halls, forbidding theater owners to run their reels, and banning public gatherings for fear of contagion. Charles Worthy becomes the unwitting player in his own town's fate, giving voice to all the pressures bearing down on him.
Everyone thinks Commonwealth is going to stay safe and democratic. But the sounds of war rallies and parades and speeches and marching bands echo into the town from the outside world. Charles' wife, Rebecca, is
a political activist and suffragette, part of the far-left intelligentsia, who in the face of chaos remains committed to her socialist ideals.
The innocent Philip finds himself caught up with a possible carrier of the flu while the sturdy, salt-of-the-earth Graham just wants to look after his pregnant wife, Amelia, the twin bodyguards of caution and self-preservation constantly keeping him silent.
Mullen's prose is rich, evocative, and detailed, especially when he describes the actual horrors of the flu epidemic. Men and women are found suffocating in their beds, bleeding from the nose
and ears, some even from eyes as dark blue as the skin around them, "the fingers the colour of wet ink."
The author embellishes history in a clever, creative mix of fact and fiction, never shying away from the political and social maneuverings of the time and presenting his fictional town, this new hybrid of socialist haven and capitalist enterprise, as just as shaken by America's entrance into the Great War as
by the terrible threat of the influenza epidemic.