After the sturm and drang of books like World War Z and Robopocalypse it seems the quiet apocalypse is becoming the order of the day. Books like Station Eleven and Good Morning, Midnight eschew the cataclysmic to focus more purely on the personal. When the English Fall starts with a bit of a bang (a passenger plane falls from the sky) and there is clearly some violence happening somewhere. But for the most part, things are pretty quiet in rural Pennsylvania.
When the English Fall is told as a series of diary entries by an Amish man called Jacob. There is a fairly unnecessary intro by the soldiers or researchers who find the diary at some later time, an open which is never returned to or referred to again and shines no light on the open ending. The English of the title is the description used for anyone who is not Amish so includes their American neighbours. The Amish have lived a devout and simple existence – think the movie Witness – horses and buggies are commonplace, very little machinery is used in their farms and they have guns but they are only used for hunting. So while they are not deliberately survivalists, Jacob’s little community is well placed when a cataclysm hits and practically everything electronic and mechanical on Earth is knocked out by a massive solar flare.
The focus of this book stays on the Amish community. The army has been called out and all hell is breaking loose in nearby urban centres but the community prevails – working their farms, attending prayer meetings, helping the army when they can. But this situation can only last so long, and soon the collapsing world, the displaced and the hungry start to impinge on their isolation. The violence that comes with this is something that this god-fearing and deliberately non-violent community has a hard time dealing with (“a sword cuts both ways” is a saying oft repeated).
David Williams uses this novel as a way of exploring the Amish in a way that might not have been possible or as interesting if it was just set in contemporary Pennsylvania. The changed world puts their faith and way of life to the test and it is found at least up to the task. It is the outside world, content to leave them be when conditions were fine, that puts the pressure on. So that When the English Fall is more of a study of the Amish and their way of life than a post-apocalyptic thriller. And is all the better for it.