An Amish family came out of the train station. They marched in a line, Father, Mother, son, two daughters; plodding along with their hats and bonnets, coattails bobbing, skirts swishing along the sidewalk. It struck me as odd to see them there of all places, (as if the Amish don’t need or use modern transportation) even though there are several Amish communities in the Finger Lakes region where I live. But I still couldn’t help but wonder: where were they going? No van was waiting to pick them up, the nearest bus stop was at least a mile away, and yet, they weren’t fazed by this, they had—purpose.
Soon after they passed by my windshield my daughter came ambling out the doors of the station, iphone in one hand, her eyes plastered to its screen, her other hand dragging along luggage. I hadn’t even noticed if the Amish had luggage. I scanned the parking lot looking for them. Poof, they were gone.
“Did you see that Amish family?” I asked her when she got in the car.
“No,” she replied.
“But weren’t they on your train from New York?” I said.
She shrugged. “Possibly.” And she went back to examining an email from work.
Months later as I read David William’s When the English Fall, a dystopian novel set in an Amish community near Lancaster, PA, my mind wanders to the vision of that family and wonder if I have sacrificed my own sense of purpose to stay connected to a virtual reality. In William’s novel, a celestial storm knocks out the power grid throughout most of the world. Planes fall from the sky, villages, towns, and cities go dark. Only the Amish appear unfazed by the event as they are used to living off the grid.
Amish are a Christian sect that emigrated to the United States from Europe to avoid religious persecution. Old Order Amish have not accepted technological change and continue to live a lifestyle similar to how their ancestors lived when they settled in eastern Pennsylvania almost two centuries ago. Over the past couple of decades, Amish families have migrated from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania into the Finger Lakes region of New York, attracted by fertile and relatively cheap farmland. And although they maintain an existence separate from us, there are numerous occasions when they interact with the English. For instance, Amish men installed the roof of my house; I frequently drive past their buggies on the side of the road, buy their produce and meat at the farmer’s markets; have watched from the roadside as they turn their fields with horse and plow. My mind forms opinions: How do they manage without electricity? Don’t the women feel confined in those dresses? I hadn’t thought of putting myself in their shoes to imagine what they might think of us.
David William, a minister of the Presbyterian Church, does just that in his novel. The narrator of When the English Fall is a man named Jacob. We watch the events unfold through his diary entries. He’s familiar with the ways of the English, having spent some time on the outside ‘in the world’. But his observations of the English are what makes this story sing.
Here’s how Jacob describes his time spent ‘in the world’: “I remember how people would walk around not even seeing each other, eyes down into their rectangles of light. No one was where they were.” I thought of my daughter leaving the train station. I thought: how many times do I stop to listen to the wind whistling in the trees? notice the way the sun glints off the snow? stop my mind from wandering to my to-do list while participating in yoga? It’s not easy keeping one’s mind in the present.
Jacob interacts with many English, including one named Mike, who sells Jacob’s furniture to city clients before the celestial storm shuts down commerce. Mike is anxious, cranky, and likes to vent to Jacob, who relays these interactions in his diary, using prose stunning in its simplicity.
“Mike came by today…I do not ask him any questions, not about the world anyway. I try not to listen, but Gracious Lord, does the man talk. He is angry about the president and the government and the Congress, and he uses words I would rather not hear.”
Jacob is describing my daily twitter feed.
At first the calamity that has befallen the English barely impacts the Amish. So while the freezers in the local markets and people’s homes contain rotting meat, Jacob’s family has a year long supply he has cured, dried, or canned in a stew. His larder is full of preserves and canned vegetables. After a week or so the military come to the Amish and demand they share their bounty with the surrounding community. Which they do.
As time goes by and people in the cities and towns begin to panic, the violence erupting ‘in the world’ starts closing in on the Amish. Jacob struggles with a moral dilemma of protecting his own family while not turning his back on their English neighbors. His pacifism which is a bedrock tenet of his faith, is put to test. In an omen of things to come, Jacob pulls a gun from his drawer, remarking how he views his weapon.
“It is a simple thing, a simple tool, and I use it for slaughtering cattle….I know that among the English there are many guns. They keep them in their drawers and bedsides, and the feel of their ownership is very different. It is a feeling of pride. A feeling of power.”
There are myriad messages that one could take away from reading this novel. The one that I clung to is this interpretation of power, how easy it is to be consumed with a false sense of importance in our daily interactions with technology. For Jacob, God is the only one who holds the power over the Universe. For many of the English, it is technology. And when it is lost, they are too.
When I translate this concept in my own life I realize I’m sucked into all kinds of pretentious and superficial interactions with people that I’ve decided is important to my daily existence. If I want to draw attention to myself and let everyone know what I’m reading and writing, I share it with social media and wait for the likes, shares, thumbs up, claps. If I’m angry at the job my contractor performed, I write a review on Google, tarnish their reputation. It’s speedier than word of mouth, and why bother confront the guy myself? Enraged by the government? Retweet the latest indignity that came out of the mouth of our President. Somehow this makes me feel better. As if I am doing something. As if I have a purpose. And I can’t be the only one, just take a look at your own daily social media feeds.
What makes this book such a pleasure to read however, is that the reader comes to these conclusions through Jacob, who doesn’t denigrate, judge, or chastise the English, only questions their motivations. And that is the crux of it all, really. The novel has made me rethink what motivates me to do what I’m doing. What purpose drives me to share my inner thoughts veiled by the fiction I write? Is it to gain accolades from ‘the world’ or to feed an inner need to create? I could envy Jacob, his belief in the ‘Order’, his community and above all things, his staunch faith and sense of purpose. Or I could learn from him.
Sheila Myers is an Associate Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.