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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

NEW NOVEL: "When the English Fall"

Author: David Williams
Title: When the English Fall  
Publisher: Algonquin Books (7/2017)

     A riveting and unexpected novel that questions whether a peaceful and non-violent community can survive when civilization falls apart.
"Again, all are asleep, but I am not. I need sleep, but though I read and I pray, I feel too awake. My mind paces the floor.
There are shots now and again, bursts here and there, far away, and I cannot sleep. I think of this man in his hunger, shot like a rabbit raiding a garden. For what, Lord? For stealing corn intended for pigs and cattle, like the hungry prodigal helpless in a strange land.
I can hear his voice."
     When a catastrophic solar storm brings about the collapse of modern civilization, an Amish community is caught up in the devastating aftermath. With their stocked larders and stores of supplies, the Amish are unaffected at first. But as the English (the Amish name for all non-Amish people) in the cities become increasingly desperate, they begin to invade nearby farms, taking whatever they want and unleashing unthinkable violence on the gentle communities.

     Written as the diary of an Amish farmer named Jacob who tries to protect his family and his way of life, When the English Fall examines the idea of peace in the face of deadly chaos. Should members of a nonviolent society defy their beliefs and take up arms to defend themselves? And if they do, can they survive?

     David Williams’s debut novel is a thoroughly engrossing look into the closed world of the Amish, as well as a thought-provoking examination of how we live today and what remains if the center cannot hold. 

     Although this novel can be classified as post-apocalyptic fiction, it does not overflow with violent blood-and-guts confrontations, although there is some mostly off-the-page violence. Instead, this is a two-and-a-half-month diary written by a deeply religious Amish farmer who, a decade or so ago, left behind his father's harsh and rigid religious group and started anew in the Pennsylvania heartland near Lancaster. Jacob (aka Jay) and his wife, Hannah, have two teen-age children: Jacob, who helps his father do the heavy work, and Sadie, who appears to have a touch of the "sight." 

     Since childhood, Sadie has suffered from seizures, which is worrisome to her parents, but she also is sometimes able to predict events in the near future, which is worrisome to the community at large. In the very first chapter (September 2), Jacob describes the seizure Sadie had during the night: "Her eyes are wide and unseeing, and her arms lash out, a dress on the clothesline before a storm." Lately, Sadie's episodes are filled with shouts "about the lights, and about the darkness. The skies are bright with angel wings, she will shout, suddenly. The English fall! The English fall! Again and again she says this." For a long time, Jacob has been troubled about Sadie's condition, and he writes frequently of praying for his daughter.

     Along with his worries about Sadie, Jacob fills the early chapters of the diary with the ordinary details of his family's life: constructing furniture in his workshop, milking the cows, picking apples, going to church, repairing his house and a neighbor's house after a storm, harvesting various crops, planting other crops. His entries can also be quite introspective as he explores his religious beliefs and worries about his friend Mike, and "English" (i.e., non-Amish) man who serves as a middleman for Jacob's furniture business. 

     Mike is completely non-religiousa profane heavy-drinking man who has divorced his wife and is now involved with another woman. Although Jacob and Mike maintain a friendly relationship, Jacob's bishop has warned him not to get too close to this particular English man because of his moral shortcomings.

     Day by day, Sadie speaks more and more about the angels and the falling English, and finally, towards the end of September, her vision comes true when a solar storm short circuits all electrical lines and brings an end to modern technology through the destruction of the global power grid. Across the globe, airplanes fall from the skies ("the English fall"), computers and cell phones stop working, city water distribution fails, fuel delivery stopscivilization as we know it comes to a halt.

     Jacob's life, though, does not change because his family is off the grid and relies only on their own food production, but for the English, the situation soon becomes dire. On his diary pages, Jacob writes down his thoughts about why his isolated, close-knit community is unchanged by the solar storm while the English society is quickly falling apart.

     Joseph meets a young National Guardsman when he delivers produce and canned goods that will be distributed to people in Lancaster, and the man explains the difficult situation in the cities. Credit and debit cards don't work. Pay checks can't be cashed. Retail stories are closed because people have no money and because stores have no inventory. Families who had only stored away enough food for a week or two have run out and are now going hungry. Winter is coming and there is no fuel to heat homes. Jacob thinks about his own family's situation: a larder and a root cellar full of food for the entire winter, a wood pile to fuel the fireplace and the stove, cows and chickens for daily milk and eggs, and neighbors to help with the final harvest. He muses that, "Our community is, to me, what all the English had built was to him. But now, for him, all of that is gone."

     In the cities, conspiracy theorists begin to spread rumors that "the Sun storm was really just a secret weapon to give the government an excuse to take away guns." Others are calling it "Lucifer's Night" or the "second Flood""God's judgment on man." As the days pass and the food supplies become depleted, the situation, predictably, becomes violent, with gangs of violent, armed men roaming the countryside in search of food from outlying farms and leaving wrecked homes and dead bodies in their wake.  In response, equally violent groups of armed neighborhood militias spring up to defend their property and their lives. Almost every night, Jacob hears the far-away sounds of shots being fired—"a faint tapping on the door of the night." Jacob and his fellow Amish must decide whether to hide behind the local militia, knowing that starving people are being killed as looters just to keep the local residents safe or whether it is more important to save their souls by coming to a different solution.

     Although the book begins at a slow pace and drops down to a plod in some chapters, the suspense gradually builds up in a crescendo during the second half of the book. Jacob must wrestle with many questions of faith as he decides what is best for his family and his soul. Should he allow Mike and his family to move in so that he and his sons will be safeeven if it means that his own family's food supply will be stretched to the limit? Should he give aid to the starving people from the cities who begin to stagger along the near-by roads, which would further decimate his supplies. 

     As I read Jacob's diary entries in which he discusses the past and present moral questions that plague him, I was reminded of two classic movies that deal with the theme of pacifism versus confrontation. Both are set during the American Civil War, In Friendly Persuasion (1956), Gary Cooper plays a Quaker whose family gets pulled into defending their Indiana farm from advancing Confederate troops. In Shenandoah (1965), Jimmy Stewart plays an isolationist Virginia farmer who gets drawn into the conflict when his youngest son is captured by the Union Army. Both films deal with the same issues that trouble Jacob. Because of its Quaker characters, Friendly Persuasion, in particular, tries to answer the toughest question of all: Is it ever right for a Christian to engage in violence against fellow humans?

     If you want a more recent parallel, look no further than AMC's The Walking Dead and the characters Carol and Morgan, both of whom continue to struggle mightily with all of the killing they have done in order to survive. And don't forget Glenn, who did not kill a human until the end of season six, shortly before he lost his own life. It may seem like an impossible reach to compare a book about the Amish with a TV show about zombies, but in the TV show, the real "walking dead" are not the zombies, but the survivors, who must compromise their pre-apocalypse morality by killing predatory humans in order to survive. If they don't they will surely die. At that basic level, Jacob's situation is no different.

    This would be a great book club selection because it poses so many fascinating moral questions that could be debated forever. What would you do if you were Jacob? What does it really mean to be "safe"? Is the physical safety of yourself and your family more important than the safety of your soul? Can you have both, or do you have to choose between them? Where do you draw the line when you are the only one left with food supplies? Do you share, or do you hoard? Is it morally right to kill a looter who is only stealing because he and his family are starving? Is it acceptable for a Christian to kill another person in self defense? Once? Twice? As often as necessary? Where is the line drawn?

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from this novel on its page, where you can click on the cover art for print or on the "Listen" icon for audio. Click HERE to listen to an interview with the author. Click HERE to read an article about the Carrington Eventa huge solar storm that took place in 1859 and which was the inspiration for Williams's premise.

     David Williams, a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church, lives in northern Virginia with his wife and sons. His stories and articles have appeared in publications as diverse as Omni, the Christian Century, and Wired. He is the author of one previous book, The Believer's Guide to the Multiverse, an exploration of theology and the cosmos. When the English Fall is his first novel.

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