We’ve seen so many books about the fall of our civilization, dystopian novels that focus on the ramifications for small and large communities alike. But what would happen to a community that’s relatively self-sustaining, that already lives apart from the rest of the world? That’s the subject of David Williams’ debut novel, “When the English Fall.”
After a vicious solar storm knocks out most of Earth’s power grid permanently, civilization is left in ruins. Planes are literally falling out of the sky. All of a sudden, the mechanisms that made society function — perhaps not smoothly, but move forward nonetheless — don’t exist anymore. But this blackout doesn’t hugely affect one community in particular, one that has vast stores of food and works on farmland: the Amish.
“When the English Fall” is told from the point of view of Jacob, an Amish man living with his family in Pennsylvania. It’s clear from the beginning he’s a good man; he believes in the principles of his people even though he keeps a journal, which is a selfish, prideful indulgence. It’s the pages of this journal that make up the book, and through it we are treated to a narrow view of civilization’s collapse.
The Amish aren’t as removed from society as many might think. Jacob’s wife, Hannah, laments the loss of her washing machine. Others who rely on vehicles to take their goods to the market, or to paying customers, are left stranded. The Amish see the planes fall out of the sky and they’re connected with the local English communities — they are very aware of the catastrophe that has occurred. Jacob, in particular, keeps tabs on what’s going on in the outside world through Mike, an English friend.
For the most part, though, Amish society continues to function as it always has. That is, until the English (non-Amish) come. The National Guard calls on the Amish community, to take as much of their food supply as is possible to distribute in shelters. People know the Amish have food, and as generous as they are it also puts them in danger. There isn’t a clear villain in this novel, unless you count desperation.
How does a society like this function as everything around them descends into utter chaos?
Williams takes a hard look at the Amish society, this group of people who are generous and try to do good by their neighbors, perhaps to a fault. How does a society like this function as everything around them descends into utter chaos? When English neighbors are willing to murder over a potato or a loaf of bread, how does a community continue to stick by principles of nonviolence?
It’s a difficult question to be sure, and there are no easy answers. But in this beautifully written book, we are exposed to questions that we may never have even thought to ask.
The journal entry format is an interesting and effective choice; as readers we are at once incredibly close to the action and characters while simultaneously being held at arm’s length. I was inside Jacob’s head, witnessing his innermost thoughts and feelings, but also removed from anything outside of it. The only character in the book who is truly fleshed out is Jacob; the secondary characters are held at a distance from the reader. I would have loved to see what Jacob’s wife, Hannah, or his daughter, Sophie, thought of the main character’s decisions.
However, interacting with the story through journal entries also has its advantages. It creates suspense and forward momentum in the narrative. I was emotionally invested in Jacob and his family’s welfare. Additionally, it insulated me from the more difficult events in the novel, making them a little easier to read.
The glimpses into the Amish community are a welcome change from the typical speculative fiction narrative. Williams presents something fresh and new with this choice, and while I can’t speak to the accuracy of the community’s portrayal in this novel, it felt real and vivid. The author immersed me in a completely different way of life; it’s impossible to understand a people through just one book, but this is a solid introduction for sure.
It’s rare to find a debut novel as finely crafted as “When the English Fall.” This book drew me in with its first line — “I hold her, tight in my arms, and she screams,” and kept me riveted long after I’d finished it. The open ending leaves room for a sequel, and I’d be glad to spend more time with this community and discover what’s next for it. But whether it’s a direct follow-up to this book or a different story entirely, you can bet I’ll be reading whatever Williams chooses to do next.
Krishna writes for Paste Magazine and Syfy Wire and is half of the podcast “Desi Geek Girls.”
Algonquin Books: 256 pp., $24.95