Madison Palmieri ’22
Today, apocalyptic fiction is one of the most popular literary genres. As such, authors must work to make their tales stand apart from the rest. In When the English Fall, author David Williams does just this. At first glance, the novel’s plot may appear to be standard apocalyptic lit fare: a man watches as the world falls apart and then experiences the fallout firsthand.
The man, Jacob, is a member of an Amish community in the midwestern United States. When the apocalyptic event, a solar storm, brings widespread outages and overall chaos to “the English,” as the Amish refer to all non-Amish people, he and his family are initially unaffected.
Indeed, the same people who once mocked him and his community for their quaint, seemingly backwards way of life now turn to them for help with skills which their families have not had to pass on for several generations, but which the Amish practice in their day-to-day lives, such as canning and hunting.
For a while, all seems relatively peaceful. While Jacob’s “English” friends, such as delivery man Mike, bring news of unrest in distant cities, the only initial sign that something is amiss in his neck of the woods is the visits his community receives from army men requesting that surplus food be shared with those in the outside world who have suddenly found themselves without.
However, as is to be expected in an apocalyptic novel, the situation soon grows dire. Mike, his ex-wife, and their sons take shelter with Jacob, his wife, and their two teenage children as resources become increasingly sparse and other “English” men and women become increasingly desperate. Thievery and violence creep closer and closer to Jacob’s door until it eventually, tragically crosses the threshold into his community.
He and his family must make a decision: remain where they are and risk the horrors at hand, or set out for the possible sanctuary of another Amish settlement?
When the English Fall’s power lies in the fact that it offers readers a different perspective on a familiar narrative. Indeed, while there are countless stories about an apocalyptic event destroying the modern way of life, this novel allows readers to see such a phenomenon from a distance: they become estranged from it, aware that it has occurred but unsure of its particulars. All they know is that the “simple” world of the Amish remains untainted by the horrors it induces onto society at large—until this society degrades to such an extent that it seeks to exploit that of the Amish.
This distance will force readers to take a hard look at the world in which they find themselves and ask how well they would fare if they suddenly found themselves without electricity and all of the conveniences and luxuries it makes possible. Would they have what it takes to live like the Amish, or would they be like those who take advantage of the Amish?
Nonetheless, there are a couple of aspects in When the English Fall which detract from its power. For one, given that the novel is written in the form of diary entries made by Jacob, they become a bit repetitive. While such repetition is certainly realistic, it makes reading laborious at times. Another minor shortcoming is the novel’s fairly abrupt ending—but readers will have to decide their opinions on this part of the novel themselves.
Overall, When the English Falls offers an unexpected, largely successful take on apocalyptic lit. Fans of the genre will be pleased to note the presence of many of its quintessential elements, from frenzied faith to revelations of moral depravity in the absence of order, but will see them as if new from Jacob’s perspective.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars