Apocalyptic stories are cropping up everywhere these days, but David Williams’s beautiful, contemplative novel takes an unusual approach. He follows the only survivors who are immune to the devastation — the Amish — and they’re getting along just fine.
The “English” of the book’s title are the outsiders, the rest of us, whose world collapses after a solar storm wipes out all electronics. Nothing based on magnetic chips works — which is nearly everything: cars, phones, refrigeration, harvesters, and hospital equipment. There is no food, no water, and a desperate populace is turning to violence.
But the insular Amish, the plain folk, who have long turned their backs on modern life — who farm by hand, travel by horse, and cook with wood — carry on as usual. They gather for prayer and feasting, their sense of community not only intact but vibrant.
We learn all of this through the diary of Jacob, a kind hearted, devoutly religious man, whose faith requires that he offer help to those in need. Amish larders are full to brimming, so Jacob and his neighbors have been packing wagons with food to send into the cities.
Of course, their pastoral idyll cannot last, of this Jacob is aware. Distant gunshots rip through the night air as armed gangs begin combing the countryside for food. Dystopia is moving closer, and it will sorely test Jacob’s faith.
Troubled by the encroaching bloodshed, Jacob knows that “the sword has no handle.… And when you pick it up, the blade cuts into your hand.” This conundrum resides at the heart of the book: if protecting his family requires violence — which it most likely it will — Jacob will be sorely tested to disavow his deeply held beliefs.
Moral people placed in impossible situations forms the crux of most good fiction, and When the English Fall is no exception. As the gun shots creep ever nearer, David Williams ramps up the tension, and because he has given us such admirable, engaging characters, we’re caught up in a growing sense of dread.
By the end, however, the author neatly side steps the issue — too neatly. The result is a bit of a cop-out, and Williams somewhat lessens the power of his book.
Still, WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL is a stand-out. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking—and worthy of fine discussions for any book club. Highly recommended.
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.