Book cover

WALLA WALLA, Wash. – When colleges and universities reconvene this fall, a top agenda item will be mitigation of the present-day swine flu concern. But at Whitman College, the long-ago 1918 flu pandemic also will be a focus as students, faculty, staff and interested Walla Walla community members participate in the intellectual exercise of reading and discussing the emotional and physical phenomena of the “Spanish flu” pandemic.

Coincidentally, the college chose “The Last Town on Earth,” the critically acclaimed novel by author Thomas Mullen, as the first-year students’ required summer reading assignment —a decision made before news broke about the H1N1 flu. The book tells the fictional but historically correct story of a small town in rural Washington in 1918 that attempts to isolate itself to prevent the flu from infecting its citizens. The college will host two events based on the reading; both are open to the public.

The first is a faculty panel presentation that takes place Aug. 29, 2 to 3:30 p.m. in Cordiner Hall. The panel members, who will share their unique, discipline-specific perspectives, include Nadine Knight, assistant professor of English; Jason Pribilsky, associate professor of anthropology; and Jim Russo, associate professor of chemistry and health professions adviser.

The second is “An Evening with Thomas Mullen,” a talk by the author on Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m. in Cordiner Hall. A book signing will follow Mullen’s presentation. Whitman has provided books to local libraries for community members who wish to participate, and books are available for purchase at the Whitman College Bookstore, 280 Boyer Ave.

“The Last Town on Earth” was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fennimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction. It has received praise from a number of reviewers, including author Larry Watson, who said “Mullen’s novel could not be more timely or relevant, and eerily so. I promise you, while you’re reading “The Last Town on Earth,” the mere sound of a cough will be enough to raise the hair at the back of your neck.”

This is the 12th year of Whitman’s assigned summer read for first-year students. The first in 1998 was “The Visit,” a 1956 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Subsequent books have included “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien; “A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy Leagues” by Ron Suskind; and “The Devil’s Highway” by Luis Alberto Urrea. Last year “The Complete Persepolis” was read.

CONTACT: Lenel Parish, Whitman College News Service (509) 527-5156