Book review: ‘When the English Fall’

Nov 6, 2017 by

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Iwill not soon forget an image David Williams creates in the opening chapters of his excellent novel, When the English Fall. The image is searing in its horror and in what it portends. Some kind of solar storm has afflicted the Earth, causing the North American electric grid to go dark. The novel’s protagonist, Jacob, sitting outside with his daughter, Sadie, witnesses an airplane in the distance, drifting downward, “like a dark, windblown leaf against the color-splashed sky.” Flashes of fire and the faint sound of crashing aircraft around them suggest an ominous fate for thousands.

"When the English Fall"

“When the English Fall”

“The English fall,” Sadie says, announcing the literal (and figurative) collapse of modern society.

Because Jacob and Sadie are Amish, they are inured from the initial distress of a world going dark. But in time even the Amish face difficult decisions about what it means to be in the world but not of it and about how firmly they should cling to their theology and tradition when their English neighbors are suffering.

When the English Fall is narrated from the perspective of Jacob, an Amish farmer with two children: a son, also named Jacob; and Sadie, whose seizures trouble Jacob and his wife, Hannah, but also afford Sadie unique insight into the troubles besetting the land.

Williams uses the elder Jacob’s diary as a narrative device, showing with compelling immediacy how the communities around Lancaster, Pa., have descended into chaos after the apocalyptic event, jeopardizing the peaceful and separate Amish.

In the days immediately after the solar event, not much changes for Jacob and his family. They continue to farm their land and can eat well on the food they have cultivated and preserved. While others around them have little ability to travel, Jacob’s family can stay connected with other Amish through horse and buggy.

Their immediate concern is only for a washing machine that can no longer operate because the solar storm has rendered their generator useless, and the potentially increasing difficulty of harvesting, as two threshers in the community are broken by a force that has all but destroyed modern society.

“And though no one would know it from here,” Jacob records in his diary, “because today has been like almost any other day among the simple folk, the English are struggling.” Not just in areas near Lancaster; Jacob hears that people are suffering in other parts of the land, too, where the computers that make commerce possible are dead, phones no longer work, banks are inoperable and people in cities especially, far from food sources, are starting to go hungry.

Each new diary entry suggests the Amish will not be saved from the chaos around them, even as they try to help their English neighbors survive by offering a portion of their food stores and providing space for refugees. Jacob’s decision to allow an English friend, Mike, Mike’s ex-wife and their two sons to stay in the daadi haus on his farm reflects the protagonist’s attempts to extend hospitality, despite prohibitions against mixing with the English. Jacob fears what the Bishop will say of this decision, but even Bishop Schrock recognizes the need to soften restrictions for their suffering neighbors: “It is our burden,” the bishop tells him. “It is a sacrifice. It is a duty. Even if it destroys our bodies or brings us hunger. We have no choice but to be as Christ taught.”

As the situation worsens for everyone, Jacob realizes that despite living in quiet separation from the English, all lives are intertwined. The gunshots Jacob hears, at first far away, come closer each night, and Jacob notes in his diary how violence has descended on his peaceful community until it is right on his doorstep, challenging the nonresistant ideas the Amish hold dear.

Jacob writes that “as the world of the English falls around us, we are not separate. Yes, we have the Order, and yes, we have our way, but the time when that meant we stood free from the world has passed. . . . The English are like earth, or the air. And if the rain falls, it falls on all alike, as the Bible says.”

The novel’s denouement tests Jacob’s hypothesis, that the Amish — despite their attempts to remain apart from the English — are not so separate after all, at least not in the era of modernity. By the novel’s end, we are also compelled to consider our own firmly held convictions, and how those might be tested by a cataclysmic event. Like Jacob, readers will wonder to what we are really called as followers of Jesus, especially when faced with immense human suffering.

Williams’ first novel, When the English Fall is a beautifully written postapocalyptic story, and while “beauty” and the “post-apocalypse” might seem conflicting descriptors, Williams manages to pull off this incongruity. Although I am not generally a fan of postapocalyptic writing, this novel proves the exception, perhaps the only selection in this genre I’ve endured until its end. By then, I was left to wonder what might happen were modern society to collapse and whether I would be able to cling to what I hold dear: not only my material belongings and my community but my most sacrosanct ideals.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.


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