David Williams’ WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL is an apocalyptic story about an Amish community struggling to survive after a solar storm fries the world’s electronics. I liked it for its freshness and fair degree of realism, but with some big reservations.
Being a fan of apocalyptic fiction, I always thought the Amish would be ideal survivors after a world-changing disaster. They live largely without technology right down to getting around using horse and buggy. They’re farmers and live close to the land. WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL convinced me they’d have all the skills to survive but would be ultimately doomed to die.
First, the story. We’re introduced to Jacob and his wife Hannah, son Jacob, and daughter Sadie. They’re farmers and craftsmen living in an Amish community outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They call themselves “plain folk,” speak a mixture of English and Dutch, and call the rest of America “the English.” Epileptic seizures and strange visions plague Sadie, who keeps saying the angels will come and the English will fall. When a solar storm fries the world’s electronics, billions of people must now survive without electricity.
The Amish are well positioned both to help and survive, but too many people live in the cities, there’s too little food, and the recovery efforts are too slow. The military imposes martial law, but even the military starts to break down. It isn’t long before starving refugees begin to raid the farms looking for food.
Enter the strong Amish faith and pacifism. This faith permeates every paragraph and chapter of the book, which is presented as Jacob’s journal (and had me skimming at times due to repetition). While his Christian faith is a great source of relief and strength in times of trouble, it also demands pacifism even in the face of certain murder. The family faces difficulties but overall very little hardship. By the end of WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL, and that ending comes a little abruptly, only one bad thing has happened to them, from which they are promptly rescued by a non-Amish. But it’s obvious at the end they’re all going to die because they can’t defend themselves nor can they even allow others to defend them.
But enter religion again. From what I could tell from Jacob’s narrative, the Amish believe in divine providence, which includes God answering prayers by intervening in the physical world. This is reinforced by Sadie’s visions being not mental illness but possibly communication from God. (I found her a cloying character with little to do in the book other than be patronizingly mysterious and prophetic. In fact, all of Jacob’s family are poorly developed characters who come across as two-dimensional.) So as the reader, for you to believe the book has a happy ending, you have to accept that God is okay with billions dying but that he’s looking out for a select few. Well, most of these people, anyway, as many Amish in America are already killed by the end of the book.
So I ended the read feeling a bit torn about it. I liked it. Actually, I liked it a lot. It’s well written. The way surrounding cities react to the crisis sounded realistic and worked for me. Jacob is an interesting and sympathetic narrator. I particularly enjoyed the look inside a typical Amish community and how they lived, which is laid out in the novel’s slow-burn setup. I loved the connection between a solar storm/EMP-like event and how the Amish would be ideally positioned to survive it. But for me the book just couldn’t connect the dots and make it work toward an ultimately satisfying conclusion.