Post-Apocalyptic Hope in When the English Fall
and The Road
L. Lamar Nisly

Our culture’s current fascination with post-apocalyptic novels and movies has been well documented, so perhaps it was only a matter of time until an Amish post-apocalyptic novel joined that pantheon. What may be more surprising are the significant connections between David Williams’s When the English Fall and the popular and critically acclaimed The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Certainly the two novels have substantial differences. The Road’s profound and provocative prose provides hints of God and raises powerful questions about how to survive and at what price. When the English Fall offers a quieter voice, partly because the story spans the apocalyptic event so that society is still more intact, but also because it focuses on a community grounded in faith. Yet in helpful ways, the texts engage similar concerns of what happens when a society’s structures fall apart as the novels explore their child characters’ seemingly innate connection to the divine, how people should approach external threats, and the possibilities for hopeful outcomes.

To be clear, the similarities between the two novels should not be overstated, beginning with the differences between the two authors. McCarthy, who won a Pulitzer for The Road, was raised Roman Catholic but has expressed his uncertainties about belief. In an interview, Oprah Winfrey says to McCarthy, “You haven’t worked out the God thing yet.” McCarthy responds, “It depends on what day you ask me. Sometimes it’s good to pray.… I don’t think you have to have a clear idea of who or what God is in order to pray. You can even be quite doubtful about the whole business.” When the English Fall is Williams’s first novel. He is pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and writes regularly about matters of faith communities, particularly the importance of “human-scaled communities. You cannot be effectively Christian if you don’t do intimacy well” (interview with Palmer, 28). In addition, the novels themselves have significant differences. The Road’s prose is searing and spare, almost poetic in its elevated resonance, with the main characters identified only as an unnamed man and his son. Written as the journal of Jacob, an Amish man, When the English Fall is simple and staid, a direct telling that at times opens into more flowing reflections. Similarly, the feel of the two novels differ, with the intensity and ever-present potential for violence in The Road at times bursting into full bloom, as in the horrific basement scene where humans are imprisoned as a cannibal gang harvests their limbs. While violence is shown at times in When the English Fall—such as the shooting that averts the massacre of Jacob’s family—more commonly the violence happens offstage. The presence of a close-knit community provides a hint of security even in an increasingly chaotic world.

The Road

Although these differences should not be dismissed, a more significant focus for the two novels, I believe, is their shared exploration of what happens when society falls apart. As Jen Hinst-White writes in reference to When the English Fall, these novels ask “what kind of people [do] we become, or continue to be[?]” (116). When societal structures crumble, how do we survive? What is revealed about us and those around us when our culture’s restraints are stripped away? In both novels, an important element is the small primary family unit. The boy and man are alone in The Road, since the mother had earlier committed suicide rather than face the constant danger from the roving cannibalistic gangs. Set years after the apocalyptic event, the novel presents everyone the two encounter as likely threats to their existence. In When the English Fall, Jacob and his wife, Hannah, lament that they have only been able to have two children. Yet even if their immediate family is smaller than they would wish, they are part of a supportive, intertwined Amish community, and even their English neighbors think well of and look out for members of that Amish community.

Within these contexts, both novels focus on a child who seems to have an innate connection with the divine, a linkage that provides a focus and sense of possibility in a fraying world. The son in The Road, who seems about eight or ten years old, is shown through his father’s eyes as having a numinous quality, even as the novel raises significant questions about God’s role in the world. Near the beginning of the novel, in a characteristically enigmatic comment, the man says of his son, “If he is not the word of God God never spoke” (5). Though the statement is tentative with its double negation, this early remark points to the son’s outsized role in the novel. Various other images throughout the novel underline the son’s special status. The boy is a “Golden chalice, good to house a god” (75), “glowing in that waste like a tabernacle” (273), so “when he moved the light moved with him” (277). These images, imbued with religious significance, point the reader toward seeing the boy as connected with the divine. Given this context, the boy’s statement to his father that “I am the one” (259) takes on Messianic overtones, even though the son is not explicitly laying claim to that tradition.

When the English Fall

Sadie, the fourteen-year-old daughter in When the English Fall, seems at first to be uttering nonsense as she has seizures. The family is gravely concerned about her apparent medical condition. Yet her father, Jacob, acknowledges that there have been past moments when it seemed as though she predicted events before they happened. This possible spiritual dimension serves as a backdrop to the present of the novel, when Sadie keeps reiterating that angels are coming soon and insisting, “They fall” (4). The novel’s apocalyptic event turns out not actually to be angels falling but rather a spectacular solar storm that knocks out almost all electrical circuits, causing planes to crash from the sky and cities to go dark. As the family observes the bright dancing lights in the sky and the planes crashing to earth, Sadie says with tears in her eyes, “The English fall” (52). After this event, Sadie’s health seems much better until suddenly, as the family is eating dinner one evening, she has a seizure. Afterward, she tries to explain, “I felt suddenly frightened and ashamed, like my heart was breaking. Like I’d done something horrible. I hadn’t. It wasn’t me, Dadi. It was someone else” (179). Though at the time this explanation makes no sense, the next morning the family learns that a neighboring Amish family had been shot by looters at just the time of Sadie’s seizure. This timing combined with her explanation suggests that Sadie is in tune with a spiritual dimension. Through these various incidents, members of the community come to recognize that Sadie is a prophet figure, so that while she had earlier been regarded with suspicion, toward the end of the novel she is consulted for advice. When her father asks if she “knows things,” Sadie sighs and says, “sometimes my soul is all lit up, like lightning on a summer night, in a cloud without rain” (212–13).

A particularly significant connecting point between the boy in The Road and Sadie in When the English Fall is the Christ-like way in which each is concerned about other people, even unlikable or dangerous characters. Yet while this linkage is noteworthy, each novel’s context for this attitude shows the very different approaches apparent in the texts. In The Road, the father’s overriding goal is to protect his son from the ever-present danger of the marauding bands of cannibals and to find enough food as they journey south. While the boy is terrified and hungry, his differing priorities become clear time and again as they encounter others, leading to ongoing conflicts with his father. For instance, when they come across a man burned by lightning, the boy requests, “Can’t we help him Papa?” (50). The father insists that there is nothing they can do. Similarly, when they see another boy, the son insists they should help him, saying, “We should get him and take him with us.… And I’d give that little boy half my food” (86). The father makes the rational case that their supplies are too limited to support anyone else, but the son pushes for a selfless response that embraces what is right even if it puts their survival at risk. The boy’s stance becomes most clear after a thief has taken their supplies. When the father tracks him down, he threatens the thief with his gun and forces him to give back everything, taking even his clothes. The boy cannot stop crying about this outcome, so that finally the father goes back to the spot where the man had been and leaves the clothes. He tries to placate his son by saying that he was not going to kill the thief. Much later, the boy responds, “But we did kill him” (260). Given the intense danger and their precarious situation, the father’s actions and attitude seem entirely justified. His intention to protect his son at any cost likely resonates with parents the world over. And yet it is the boy who models Jesus’s surprising and disturbing commands to love our enemies, feed them, and turn the other cheek. The ongoing conflict between the boy and his father reflects a basic difference between world views: whether one should seek survival at any cost or if caring for others is the higher calling.

In When the English Fall, by contrast, Sadie and her community share a common outlook in their view of others. Perhaps Sadie’s most striking encounter takes place when two thieves are threatening her family. Just as the thieves are about to kill them, a visitor shoots the thieves instead. Though the older one dies instantly, the teenager lingers, and Sadie cradles his head on her lap. She speaks to him “about the trees and the stars and the sky. About forgiveness” (208). Sadie sets out her basic connection with this sinner, saying, “He and me, Dadi” (208). Yet this attitude is in tune with her family, for they try to make the thief comfortable and pray for him. Indeed, the community as a whole seeks to help those in need. They willingly offer food from their stores for the army to take to hungry people in the city. Jacob and his family, with the bishop’s blessing, welcome in a family to live with them. The Amish community mourns deeply when a neighboring family is killed, but they also lament and bury a thief who had been killed and left hanging by the road as a warning. In his journal, Jacob links the hanged thief with Christ on the cross. In this context, Sadie’s connection with those who would do her family harm is in tune with her larger community’s ethos.

So, as portrayed by these novels, whom do we become when the restraining structures of society crumble? How much hope emerges in these texts? Both novels show at best a tenuous sense of possibility, yet each suggests that some hope is still present. In The Road, the father and son have reached the coast, though the father has continued to become sicker. While they had hoped for a more hospitable climate as they journeyed south, the bleakness of the area seems much the same as before. When the father dies, the boy’s chances of survival seem dim indeed. Yet in a hopeful turn, the boy is welcomed into a new family, some of the “good guys” (282) who have two children and “didn’t eat them” (284). A safe future is far from assured. As Steven Frye writes of the novel, “Violence is a reality endemic to the world’s existence; depravity and avarice are central to human nature; and meaning, purpose, and value, if they are to be found, must be sought in darkness” (8). Yet hope for a society that is governed by more than the most violent impulses of humans does exist, as this new family selflessly takes in the boy and offers him shelter. The mother of this family talks to the boy about God, and

he tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father.…The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time. (286)

In the midst of caring relationships, of people carrying out Christ’s love for the least of these, the boy continues his innate connection to the divine.

The Amish community in When the English Fall explicitly wrestles with how to respond to the growing violence around them while remaining true to their basic beliefs. At the funeral sermon for the murdered Amish family, the minister exhorts the community “about not letting fear take us and change us, turning us away from the simple path of grace” (190). When the locals decide to take protection into their own hands, forming an armed militia, Jacob muses, “More armed men, even friends, could not be a good thing” (192). A bit later, the bishop articulates a similar view, saying, “Is that what we are meant to be, Jacob? Safe? Safe behind the guns of our neighbors?…[The sword] cuts us, even if it is not our hand that wields it” (218). In this context, Sadie returns to her prophetic role, telling her father, “I think we have to go.” When he asks where, she responds, “To where it isn’t safe” (213). This response seems enigmatic at best, given the increasing danger within their current setting. Yet the members of the community become ever more certain of “the even greater peril—to our souls—if we stayed” (228). A bit sheepishly, Jacob turns to his daughter for advice on whether they should stay or leave. If they stay, Sadie says, more blood would be shed to protect them.

And if we go? Then the story of our journey will be told and remembered. Of our setting aside what we have, and not resting in the shadow of the sword. It will be harder. Some of us will not live. More, I think. But it would let us live our plain way, and be a witness.… God’s will is too big for me to see. It hurts to see even part of it. Like a fire. But I think it will be better if we go, and face the harder journey. More like him. (232)

For this novel, the paramount concern is living the right way, following the call of faithfulness. Surviving in this context means more than physical survival. Living out Christ’s call to love is what must endure.

Though the contexts are quite different, these two post-apocalyptic novels invite us to wrestle with questions of survival and hope. The Road’s very bleak world nevertheless provides a suggestion that living amidst this violence can include selfless love for the other. In a different register, rather than being merely a backdrop for standard post-apocalyptic tropes, Williams’ portrayal of an Amish community similarly provides a thoughtful and engaging exploration of the disruption and soul-searching that emerge when the larger society around the separatist group collapses. The future in each of these novels is far from certain. And yet, perhaps against all odds, signs of hope emerge. When the Amish members take food to a collection site staffed by the National Guard, Jacob notices an armored personnel carrier, “with many wheels and a large and wicked gun mounted in a turret on the top…it seemed strange to see it here, looking so fierce and terrible. And there we were, filling it up with jam and green beans and canned corn” (79). This lovely picture, with its surprising and beautiful juxtapositions, serves perhaps as an appropriate image for these novels, as against all odds they offer hints of hope for humanity amidst a ruined society.


L. Lamar Nisly is vice president of academic affairs and a professor of English at Bluffton University, a Mennonite-affiliated institution.


Works Cited

Frye, Steven. Understanding Cormac McCarthy. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Ser. Ed. Matthew Bruccoli. University of South Carolina Press, 2009.

Hinst-White, Jen. “How to Survive the Apocalypse.” Image 94 (Sept. 2017): 109-117.

McCarthy, Cormac, interview by Oprah Winfrey, The Oprah Winfrey Show, June 5, 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3kpzuk1Y8I.

——. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Williams, David. “Post-Apocalyptic Now.” Interview with Elizabeth Palmer. Christian Century, 2 Aug. 2017, pp. 27-28.

——. When the English Fall. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2017.

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