When the English Fall By David Williams Algonquin Books 256 pp.

'When the English Fall' envisions the Amish as society's post-apocalyptic saviors

A gentle concern imbues this contemplative novel which imagines the rest of the society turning to the Amish when the power grid fails.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and the Amish feel fine.

That’s the premise of David Williams’s elegiac dystopian novel, When the English Fall.

Told through journal entries found at an abandoned farmhouse, this version of world’s end has no bad guy – no zombies, aliens, or plagues. There’s no nuclear war or even a Rapture. Its arrival, at least as seen from the hills of Pennsylvania, is silent: A solar storm takes out the power grid, causing planes to fall from the sky and wiping out most transportation and communications systems.

So the end comes, not with a bang, but with dancing, colored lights and a night sky filled again with stars as the world’s cities go dark. And everyone is left to struggle on the next day the best they can.

Jacob, a farmer philosopher and father of two, is a solemn bystander to chaos, as he quietly continues to go about days ordered by time-honored tradition: crafting furniture, planting beans, drying jerky, going to prayer meetings on neighboring farms.

Well, it’s sort of the premise. Although their cellars are full of preserves put up for the winter, and their way of life is independent of things that required computers, electricity, or motors, Jacob and the other members of the Order are deeply concerned about suffering in Lancaster and cities too far away for them to have seen the red glow of what used to be civilization.

“For us, life is much the same,” Jacob writes. “But we are not the only people.” 

That gentle concern imbues the contemplative novel. Jacob and their neighbors give their extra food to the National Guard to help distribute in Lancaster, and quietly pray as tales of lawlessness and looting get closer to their farms.

“Jesus taught us that we should never allow the world’s hate to move our hands against others among God’s children. I know these things as if they are written into me,” Jacob writes, baffled by the thought of using a gun against a human – even in self-defense. “How could they see that person as a child of God, loved by God as they are loved? I could not imagine it. It is the strangest thing about the English, the thing that is beyond me.”

Sworn never to lift a hand in violence, the Order finds the depth of its faith tested. Can goodness be defined only by what you don’t do? What good is prayer without works, the Amish wonder.

“And in this time, as everything we know falls apart, all we have to hold on to is our way,” Jacob’s bishop – with whom he has a prickly relationship – says. “But what is our simple way, and all of our actions, if we cannot welcome the hungry? And be hospitable to the homeless stranger in our land?”

It’s a tale that’s quietly told, with a double handful of isolated characters who have little way of getting news beyond the borders of their well-tended acres. But Williams creates an impressive sense of dread that builds like the piles of garbage growing by the day on the city streets. “You’d think people would work together. You folks know how to do that, right?” an English farmer asks Jacob. “But ain’t nothin’ working.”

Jacob’s fears, he writes, aren’t for himself, but instead for his wife, Hannah, and their two teenagers, Joseph and Sadie. (In the novel’s one touch of magic realism, Sadie has unexplained visions of the coming apocalypse and its aftermath.)

He also is desperately worried about his friend, Mike, who distributes Jacob’s handmade furniture and whose friendship is an ongoing sore spot between Jacob and the bishop. Mike’s life is entirely different from the one Jacob has chosen, but he withholds judgment – even about things that befuddle him, like the radio programs Mike tunes into that work him up into a lather. “The radio person was angry about ‘the global warming hoax,’ and ‘the economy,’ and everything,” Jacob writes before all the transmitters go silent. “I do not know why Mike listens to the radio if all he receives is anger, but he does.”

He sees in his friend sorrows planted long ago that now are ready to harvest, which serves as an apt metaphor for novel.

“When the English Fall” is thoughtful and the events are believable – even if the members of the Order are a little too saintly to be so. (The hypocritical, unhappy, or judgmental members of the community remain firmly off-screen.) And Williams lets his characters avoid truly wrenching ethical dilemmas, which might have deepened the novel. But Jacob is written as a witness, not a man of action – and he is so likable Williams just about gets away with it.

“Prayers do not always give us the answers we assumed we would get,” one character says.  Sometimes, we don’t get the apocalypse Hollywood expects either.

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