WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL, by David Williams. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 242 pp., $24.95.
David Williams’ clever first novel, “When the English Fall,” is a wholly unique entry in a genre desperate for fresh ideas. Yes, it’s another end-of-the-world story, a la Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” Chang-rae Lee’s “On Such a Full Sea” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Yes, it’s written in a sort of elegiac style that acts as a counterpoint to the various atrocities going on in the outside world. But wait — don’t leave yet.
Williams’ slim book is set not among vampires or twee actors or the slaves of capitalism but in Amish country, among farmers whose material concerns are studiously simple and unadorned and who are better equipped to weather the fall of civilization than most. The novel’s narrator is Jacob, a farmer whose family misfortunes appear to other Amish to be a punishment for his unrighteousness. For his nebulous transgressions, they believe he has been sentenced to one miscarriage and one child with epilepsy, though his daughter Sadie may be able to see the future during her seizures. “When the English Fall” begins with something called a Sun Storm — maybe a solar flare, maybe something else — that destroys all the electronics in town and, probably, the world. The Amish have lost a few generators and some solar arrays — among the very few electrical devices permitted — but they are mostly fine. The worry, instead, is that they will be overrun by needy English. (“English” is how the Amish refer to outsiders.)
Jacob confronts them when he decides to cut down some looters who have been hanged as punishment: “There was a shifting among the English men, and one stepped forward. ‘The bodies oughta stay up. Can’t have no thieves takin’ what little we got.’ He shifted the rifle in his arm, but he did not raise it. I felt my heart race, but I do not think I showed it.”
Christians are prone to see themselves as “in the world, but not of it,” to quote the Gospel of John, and Jacob struggles superficially with how to strike that balance — does he give everything to the thieves who demand it? Does he allow his English friend, Mike, to find sanctuary when everything goes pear-shaped?
Of course he does. Jacob is as good a person as he could possibly be, and while he makes the occasional hard choice, Williams spares him any true dilemmas. (At one point he and his nonviolent family are at the edge of death; the task of killing someone so that they will be saved falls to one of the English.)
Williams might have seen fit to question whether a society where subsistence is the highest earthly good really does morally outrank the messy, doomed glory of American civilization, but doesn’t quite. He does let a number of mysteries linger: What is the Sun Storm, exactly? Why does Sadie have premonitions? We’re not told, which is a relief.
Instead, Williams ends the book with his heroic family setting out across the United States in the contemporary equivalent of a covered wagon, seeking shelter from storms and civil unrest in the same way the Puritans sought to pursue their odd way of life far away from the persecutions of the true English. The Puritans weren’t saints, either, and perhaps some honest wrongdoing would have given Williams’ characters a little more depth. But the totality of “When the English Fall” is surprisingly moving, and Jacob a sympathetic and compelling guide to a world that feels closer every day.