Book Review: One Second After

by John Downey '23 on April 8, 2022
A&E Co-Editor

Arts & Entertainment

Book Review: One Second After

The Power of History in the Absence of Electrical Power

Madison Palmieri ’22

While some apocalyptic fiction novels are set in a near, nightmarish future or one even more remote, oftentimes, the most frightening and therefore impactful works in this genre take place in the present day. William Forstchen’s One Second After does just that. True to its title, the novel explores what happens in the immediate aftermath of an attack that fundamentally alters modern American life.

When readers first meet protagonist John Masterson, he seems to be living a thoroughly mundane existence in a stereotypical American small town in North Carolina. A war veteran, a professor at a local college, the father to two teenage girls, and the loving owner of two golden retrievers, Masterson’s most pressing concern is whether his younger daughter will think she’s too old for the stuffed animals he got her for her birthday.

When the power suddenly goes dark as a result of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) terrorist attack, however, Masterson unwittingly finds himself in a relative position of authority thanks to his military know-how and respected position in the community. Along with the mayor, the town doctor, and other leading officials, Masterson works to navigate the obstacles that accompany a sudden backwards technological shift of 500 years.

As is the case with all apocalyptic literature, all goes well—until it doesn’t. While this is to be expected, the way in which Forstchen places his protagonist directly in the path of these tragedies makes it particularly gut-wrenching. For instance, due to his curious status as a non-official on the makeshift council governing the small town, he is tasked with executing two thieves, one of whom was a former student of his, by firing squad. An even more tragic instance of this narrative technique is how Masterson must grapple with his desire to break the ration rules to secure insulin for his diabetic daughter while at the same time enforcing the rules for everyone else.

One Second After does a great job of finding moments of humanity in the midst of a world succumbing to moral corruption. For example, when one member of the council suggests that the townspeople may be forced to consider eating domesticated animals, Masterson and the other council members immediately shut him down. Although some of them are eventually forced to do so, such exchanges affirm that the characters strive to hold onto their humanity—and some semblance of normalcy—for as long as they can.

One major recurring theme throughout the novel is the importance of history. Masterson, as a history professor, possesses a wealth of knowledge about historical events, especially those related to war, given his military background. It is this knowledge that, along with his leadership skills, makes him such an admired, respected, and turned-to figure throughout the novel. 

However, at times, Masterson’s historical knowledge borders on voyeuristic. For instance, when at a pre-battle gathering at the local college, at which the student soldiers are told that not all of them will make it out of the forthcoming struggle alive, one of his first thoughts is that the battle will be remembered by historians for decades and even centuries to come.

Nonetheless, One Second After is an overall thought-provoking read. With heart-wrenching moments and vivid, at times graphic, imagery, the insight into the human condition which it offers will remain with readers long after they read its final lines.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book Review: When the English Fall

by John Downey '23 on March 3, 2022
A&E Co-Editor

Arts & Entertainment

Book Review: When the English Fall

A Unique Take on the Apocalyptic Fiction Genre

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 catch?

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