While recently browsing in Little City Books, my favorite bookstore on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, I happened across When the English Fall by David Williams. The book was marked as a 2017 indie favorite. Trusting the curatorial instincts of the staff, I bought the novel.
I’m happy that I did.
The novel is told from the journal entries of Jacob, an Amish furniture maker and farmer in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The story begins with Jacob reflecting on his growing worry over his daughter Sadie’s seizures and visions. Her symptoms suggest a serious lifelong mental illness. Sadie begins predicting that angels soon shall fall from the sky.
One night, a solar storm erupts, knocking out the electrical grid. Jacob and his family see the distant lights of Lancaster city go dark. In sheer horror, they watch a commercial airplane crash from the sky. The angels have fallen.
The author, David Williams, based this phenomenon on the Carrington Event, a worldwide solar storm in 1859. People from across the globe reported auroras burning brightly in the night. Telegraph systems throughout the United States and Europe collapsed. Williams wondered: what would happen in our global, information age if the power went down with no foreseeable return of service?
Without power, life grows increasingly desperate in this pocket of Pennsylvania. Rumors abound of worse strife in larger cities, such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. However, in the immediate aftermath, little changes for the Amish. Life continues as it has since their arrival in the United States.
The Amish aren’t connected to the electric grid. They don’t own televisions, radios, computers, and telephones. They don’t drive automobiles. Yes, some Amish might use gas generators to power freezers or washing machines. (This would depend on the Amish’s district. Every district is guided by its own rules.). They grow and produce much of their food. At worst, the Amish would experience a minor inconvenience amid a widespread systems failure. Many Amish might not even notice.
Jacob and his Amish brethren continue working on their farms, bartering with their neighbors, and supplying food to nearby cities. However, the ugliness and the violence of a now unmoored world draws closer to their homes and community. I’ll refrain from mentioning any further plot points or narrative arcs.
I’ve long been fascinated with simple living, homesteading, and independence from consumerism and mass media. In recent years, I’ve read several books on Amish culture and life and I admire their communal self-reliance and steadfastness of faith. Needless to say, I was immediately hooked by the premise of When the English Fall.
The Amish see themselves as living the Gospel as fully as humans might hope. This requires a disassociation with much of the outside world. The novel questions the possibility of such detachment. Can anyone–as a group or an individual–separate from the culture and world at large? When does one become complicit in the brutality and violence of the world? How can one escape it?
David Williams crafted a well-written, compelling, and thought-provoking book in When the English Fall. This feat become even more impressive when considering it’s Williams first novel.
Several weeks of the summer remain. If you’re looking for a book to read while the sun still sets late, When the English Fall deserves a chance.