Shortly after finishing my previous post on the post-apocalyptic comic book Dark Age, I read When the English Fall by David Williams (from Algonquin Books.) The focus here is firmly on telling a realistic story of a community surviving an apocalypse.
Williams starts out with an entirely plausible (and likely) event: a solar storm. Our sun is a powerful and rather chaotic mass of fluctuating energy. Small power surges in the form of solar flares and storms periodically mess with communication systems and temporarily knocks out regional power grids. Big storms are, fortunately for us, less common, but do occur. In 1859, one known as the Carrington Effect, filled even tropical skies with auroras, knocked out telegraph lines and charged metal machinery with enough electricity to severely shock people who came into contact. That was it. A curiosity, nothing more. But 1859, society relied on mechanical, not electric power. Not any more.
That’s the starting point for this novel. A modern day solar storm on the scale of the Carrington Effect sweeps over the earth in a night filled with stunningly beautiful auroras. And the destruction of all our electronic systems. Every plane in the sky crashes; every ship at sea founders, every power grid goes dark, every bank account disappears. Suddenly, peacefully, and completely, modern civilization vanishes.
Which has very little impact on the main character, a member of the one community in modern America immune to the effects of the solar event: the Amish. Jacob and his family live in an Amish community outside Lancaster, PA. The solar storm knocks out the phone that Jacob uses to communicate with customers for the furniture he builds. It takes out the solar powered freezer many families in the local Amish community share for storing extra meat that they have not smoked. But these are minor inconveniences. Most of life continues as it always has for the community, at least at first. The Amish help out their English neighbors (“English” being the term the Amish use to refer to all outsiders.) Jacob and his fellows contribute as much food as needed when the National Guard comes by collecting supplies for the people in Lancaster once they get some trucks operating again. Bit by bit, however, the chaos and growing violence of a collapsed society begins to push into the Amish community. Looters coming from the city kill some of the Amish and steal their supplies. English neighbors catch and execute the looters. Eventually Jacob and his neighbors must confront the issue of how culpable are they in violence done on their behalf? And how should they act in a world where they will increasingly be targets of desperate violence?
And this is where Williams brings something new to the story of surviving society’s end. Of course there is going to be violence and looting and a desperate struggle for survival. Anyone who has read novels or watched movies in this genre knows what is coming. Usually, however, that violence is front and center. The struggle to survive is the most immediate aspect of life after the fall. Characters have to embrace the struggle or die. But, by setting the novel within a community that does not experience the collapse, Williams removes the violence from center stage. Jacob and his neighbors merely hear about the struggle second or third hand until late in the novel. Even when violence closes in, Jacob sees the effects, but not the actual events. That allows him, and the reader, a space to consider the moral implications of what is happening and his/our response to it. Is violence inevitable? Do they/we have to participate in it? Does it make a difference if someone else commits violent acts on our behalf instead of us committing the acts directly? Characters who have to struggle to survive don’t have the option of such concerns, which, of course, lets us readers off the hook as well. This book leads us step by step into exactly those issues without giving us any easy answers. And that makes it a compelling story.