When the English Fall* is a provocative and expansive novel that images an apocalypse brought on by a freak solar storm. Without electricity or technology of any kind, people are returned to a way of life they have no idea how to navigate and violence quickly ensues. There is one group for whom this change is inconsequential--the Amish community who lives in the farmland outside the city.
Told through journal entries, author David Williams takes readers inside the closed society of the Amish and imagines an all-too real scenario in which even this peaceful, generous community is pushed to their limits of their faith by the superficial, self-indulgent English (all non-Amish people) whom they've worked so hard to keep at bay. Below, David Williams tells us how he got the idea for When the English Fall and what he'd like us to see when it's over.
*When the English Fall is an Amazon Best Books of July pick
The Root of Apocalypse
I would get a bit of a snicker whenever I’d tell friends what I was writing.
“What kind of book is it?” they’d ask.
“Postapocalyptic Amish fiction,” I’d say.
And there’d come that smile and the familiar shake of a head that seemed to be the politest way to note that I’m a little “touched.”
But if you have a sense of who the Amish are and what the word apocalypse means, it becomes a little clearer.
I first seriously encountered Amish culture in my religious studies program at the University of Virginia and was fascinated by this remarkable, unique community. The Amish are primordial Baptists, the Protestant equivalent of one of those strange prehistoric fish you find in deep ocean waters. Since immigrating to the United States from Switzerland back in the 1860s, the lives of the Old Order Amish have remained remarkably static. In most communities, they still speak Deitsch, which isn’t Dutch but a variant of old Swiss German. Because they’ve chosen to reject the world and live in simple community, they do not engage with most modern technology.
Daily life for the Amish today looks much like it did back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s plain, involving family farming and older, manual crafts. It all feels very much like the world of the Little House books, peculiarly transposed into our modern era. No cars, no lights, no motorboats, not a single luxury, as they sang on Gilligan’s Island. This is how they have chosen to live, independent of our increasingly interconnected industrial society. They call all people who aren’t Amish “the English.” Sure, we may be Scottish or French or Korean or Guatemalan. But to the Amish, we are all English, an echo of their Germanic separation from their English-speaking neighbors.
The Amish world is governed by some very different principles than ours. Three are key. There is hochmut, which describes human pride, arrogance, and selfishness. There is demut, which involves humility and humbleness. And there’s gelassenheit, or nonviolent spiritual detachment. You do not grasp, or seek your own advancement. You maintain a gentle contentment with whatever lot you are given. The Amish see these principles as a way to live the apocalyptic life taught by Jesus, uncompromised by the distractions of our cluttered, grasping world.
Here is where our stories about the Amish and our stories of apocalypse come together. The word apocalypse does not mean destruction. ?????????? means, in the Greek from which we received that word, an “unveiling,” a “making clear.” Apocalypses, as a genre, are about stripping away all of the fluff and pretense and getting down to what matters.
That is what draws us English to apocalyptic literature. We sense, somehow, that most of the madness of our modern lives is unnecessary, our stresses and rushing about all faintly superfluous. So we tell ourselves stories of what it would be like if we had to get back to basics, if we had to rebuild after something immense rocked our complex, delicate world.
It was reflection on our fragility that stirred the vision for my novel When the English Fall. Years ago, on a beautiful, warm autumn day, I went for my lunchtime walk, taking the time to allow my mind to wander. That morning, being both a pastor and an avid reader of things scientific, I’d encountered an article about the Carrington Event. The Carrington Event was the single largest solar storm in modern history. It was 1859, early in the industrial era, and an immense blast of charged particles from our sun plowed into the earth. It blew out telegraph systems, delivered electric shocks to people who touched metal objects, and caused auroras so brilliant in the continental United States that people came outside in the dead of night thinking the sun had risen.
If that happened now? It would be catastrophic, a crippling and potentially fatal blow to our technology-dependent civilization. What would the world look like after such a thing? Commerce would be strangled. Communications, silenced. I walked and reflected on the paradoxical frailty of our technological power, and suddenly another image came into my mind. It was a vignette, a fragment of a reverie, one that had come from another fallow moment.
I had been driving my family home from a trip to western Maryland, back from what we call “the house in the country.” The minivan was warm and quiet, the family lulled to sleep by the drone of the road. My mind was on autopilot, the familiar highway rolling by, and I was lost in a daydream. As we approached a perfect bucolic hillside, I visualized an Amish man and his daughter sitting there together, watching us drive by. I imagined the girl asking her father about us and the gentle conversation that might have followed. What would he tell her about us? About our differences? About our lives, in their wild rush of busyness and movement, as fleeting as mayflies? That little vignette hung in my mind, a seed of something, returning whenever we would pass that place in the road.
That lunchtime, as I walked and meditated, the two images connected.
The Amish community, untouched by a global calamity. Our society, a fragmented ruin, within which the Amish would carry on. Yet the Amish, for all of their efforts at separateness, would not be unaffected. The collateral damage of the technological collapse would spill out across those boundaries and touch their lives in ways that no willful separation could avoid.
What would the Amish do, I wondered, when we English fell?
And from that wondering, this apocalyptic story took form, told through the journal entries of that imagined Amish man on a hillside. It reveals, or so I hope, a little about who we are as human beings and how fundamentally connected we are no matter our beliefs—Amish, English, all of us.
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