In late 1983, I moved to Lancaster,
Pennsylvania, to work as an editor for the (now-defunct) arts and culture
magazine Festival Quarterly and the
then-nascent publishing enterprise Good Books. I lived in the city, and drove
or rode the bus the 11 miles to and from Intercourse which, from Bird-in-Hand
east on the “Old Philadelphia Pike’ (PA 340), was through some of the most
beautiful and iconic Amish farm country in the state. And the most lasting gift
of my three years there was my friendship with an older Amish woman named
Malinda Riehl, the aunt of a co-worker. The oldest of
four children and the only daughter, Malinda was also the only one of her
siblings to remain within the Old Order Amish faith. In those days, she planted
and tended a large vegetable garden, rode the bus into Lancaster to clean house
for a doctor’s wife, and kept “a team’ (as she called it, though it was just
one horse) and the gray-and-black Lancaster Amish buggy to go with it.
So when I picked up When the English Fall, and was drawn into the life of the Amish farmer Jacob, his wife Hannah, their children – the young teenager Sadie with her strange future sight and the pre-adolescent Jacob – and their community (the church district), I could see and smell (manure, silage, ripe apples, propane-powered lamps) the setting immediately. When the enormous solar storm came, knocking planes from the sky, shutting down all communications systems from cell phones to computers, along with the power grid, I imagined standing on the hill above Weavertown Road, behind Malinda’s house, watching the smoke rise on the horizon to the west (Lancaster) and even more ominously to the east (Philadelphia suburbs). I thought to the present day of the friends who live in the city now and how this would affect them.
When the English Fall is a first novel, written by a Presbyterian “teaching elder’ who, judging from the jacket photo, favors an “Amish’ beard (no mustache), apparently a native of northern Virginia or at least who has lived there for a significant amount of time. He says he first encountered Amish culture in a religious studies program at the University of Virginia. The story is told from the elder Jacob’s perspective in a series of journal entries over four months, from early September until late November, more or less in the present day. The rural Amish are feeling the effects of a changing climate and the weather extremes that affect their crop yields, yet they are still able, with their frugal, careful lifestyle, to live well, to have enough, and to go on much as they have for generations. They interact on good terms, but minimally, with “the English’ (anyone who is not Amish) as neighboring farmers and as co-workers in small businesses or contract work (Jacob takes orders through an “English’ man, Mike, to build furniture for rich Lancaster residents).
And then the storm – predicted by Sadie in nights of terrible dreams that turn into dangerous seizures – strikes and though the Amish do not immediately feel the impact as the English do, it isn’t long in coming. The Amish cooperate with the local National Guard and willingly deplete their own stores to send food in Guard trucks to Lancaster, but the starvation and desperation spreads out from the huge metropolitan sprawl to the east. When the English farmers take up arms to protect their own property from looters, exacting vigilante “justice’ on some of them, they simply assume they will extend that protection to their Amish neighbors – and the district, from the bishop and elders down to the teenagers, is faced with an existential dilemma: As historic pacifists, they refuse to take up arms on their own behalf, but can they let others do it for them? And further, what does living “separate from the world’ now mean in the face of apocalypse?
Having lived in Lancaster County, and been friends with an Old Order person, helped this reader in being able to place herself so quickly and easily into the setting. It wasn’t so helpful when it came to a few of the details. For example, I remember hearing at some point that the majority of Lancaster County Amish have one of five last names – none of which are Sorenson, or even Schrock (known as a “Mennonite’ name) or, most egregiously, Stolfutz (sic). But perhaps I’m just being provincial. What bothered me more was the description of the Amish as being almost entirely independent of modern technology. They are that, more so than all but the hardest core of survivalists – but the Amish of Lancaster County are and have long been dedicated users of cell phones. I am quite sure they would roll with losing them (there are strict guidelines for their use) much more quickly and easily than the English, but this book seems to say they don’t exist in Lancaster Amish society at all.
Well – in the end, the purpose of fiction is not to give the facts, it’s to tell the truth. And the truth in this story is what we in the United States are flirting with in terms of ignoring the reality of climate change, to our possibly looming peril. Williams has said that the idea for When the English Fall grew from his musing on what would happen if a solar storm on par with one that actually did take place – in 1859 – were to happen today, as it very well could.
There is also a truth for gun-eschewing Anabaptist people living in a society in the United States that is overflowing with – and apparently crazed by – those very guns. This is dystopia, but perhaps one that is already here.