Magazine article The Christian Century

The Amish after the End: Religious Community in a Postapocalyptic Novel

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Amish after the End: Religious Community in a Postapocalyptic Novel

Article excerpt

When the English Fall

By David Williams

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 256 pp., $24.95

AMID CLIMATE change, terrorism, a global refugee crisis, nuclear standoff, and democracies traveling vectors unknown, the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction is not hard to understand. "The world feels more precariously perched on the lip of the abyss than ever," novelist Jason Heller wrote recently, "and facing those fears through fiction helps us deal with it."

The characters on the edge of the abyss in David Williams's debut novel wear coverings and suspenders. Set among the Amish of Lancaster County, the book explores a near future so imaginable that even those who roll their eyes at doomsaying--not to mention Amish-themed fiction--may find themselves brooding and watchful after living in its pages. Cathartic or not, postapocalyptic fiction is our culture's handwriting on the wall. In this case, it's in the script of an Amish farmer.

The apocalypse in When the English Fall arrives as a solar storm that knocks out the power grid, communications systems, and all the networks upon which so much of modern life depends. Williams's plotline was inspired by a solar storm in 1859 known as the Carrington Event, the damage of which now seems positively quaint--it busted telegraph systems. Were such a storm to occur today, the scaffolds of advanced capitalism--including global communication, transportation networks, banking systems, and medical care--would fall like toothpicks. Along with them would fall the "English"--the Amish term for those who are not Amish. Buffered from harm by never having climbed very far up the scaffold of modernity, the Amish world would continue and become a safe place for the English to land.

The novel introduces Jacob and his family before the solar storm hits. The entries of Jacob's journal convey the steady rhythms of his carpentry and farm work, the prayers that mark his days, the disturbingly erratic weather, and his immense and often pained love for his children. Jacob and Hannah's prepubescent daughter, Sadie, has frightening seizures that wrack her body and that often leave her talking nonsense--except when her garbled thoughts form themselves into predictions of the future. As Sadie begins to fixate on talk of lights, darkness, and angel wings, she repeats the cryptic words, "the English fall!"

And on the night of the solar storm, the English do fall--out of a plane, when navigation instruments fail. "I could see both wings, bent back dark like a broken cross, and it was floating downward, downward, very slow," Jacob writes. "It was very wrong. I began to pray."

Jacob's simple yet elegant prayers thread through the novel, and they intensify as the effects of the solar storm become clear. The cataclysm unfolds quickly for the English, who are beholden to what philosopher Albert Borgmann calls the "device paradigm": the rule of technology that both promises liberation from toil and hides its processes from view. Only when a device is rendered useless do we notice--and need--the skills and practices it had erased.

The changes occur in slow motion for Amish families like Jacob's, whose agrarian skills, communal ties, and work ethic now offer a measure of protection. "Our community is, to me, what all the English had built was to him," writes Jacob of the non-Amish Mike, with whom he does business in his carpentry work. "But now, for him, all of that is gone."

But even the Amish are not immune from the dismantling of the social order. There are simply too many ligatures between their lives and those of the English around them. As all the goods that the English took for granted are disappearing, Mike and his thoroughly modern family show up on Jacob and Hannah's doorstep. The Amish family takes them in, schooling them in the ways of survival and community. "In this time, as everything we know falls apart, all we have to hold on to is our way," a church leader tells Jacob. …

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