Dystopian Amish tale brings tears to eyes

ON BOOKS

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PHILIP MARTIN

It is good to be sus­cep­ti­ble to sim­ple beauty.

Some­times we for­get this, be­cause we are so­phis­ti­cated crea­tures who fly on air­planes and have seen a lot of the world. Be­cause we don’t want to ap­pear sen­ti­men­tal or vul­ner­a­ble to kitsch, we might be care­ful not to over­praise the man-made thing.

Be­cause we un­der­stand books are made of words se­lected by men and women like our­selves and be­cause we might imag­ine them smil­ing at hav­ing tricked us into feel­ing what they con­trive for us to feel, we might tend to with­hold the high­est praise. We might tend to ac­knowl­edge the craft be­fore the ef­fect.

But I am read­ing a book by David Wil­liams called When the English Fall (Al­go­nquin, $24.95) on a flight from Lit­tle Rock to At­lanta, and there are tears in my eyes.

Maybe it is be­cause I am es­pe­cially ten­der to the story, which is about a Pennsylvania Amish farmer named Ja­cob and his fam­ily in the wake of an apoc­a­lyp­tic cli­mate event that dras­ti­cally changes the lives of the peo­ple out­side the Or­der — the ev­ery­one else the Amish re­fer to as “the English.” Ja­cob has a 14-year-old daugh­ter named Sadie, who has seizures that cause her to cry out in the night. Ja­cob sits up with her, rock­ing her, try­ing to soothe his “strange lit­tle bird.”

Sadie has al­ways been dif­fer­ent, more sen­si­tive. She has vi­sions about an­gels and the English fall­ing from the sky, which makes her sus­pect in the eyes of some. “The women talk about it, and it trou­bles the dea­cons,” Han­nah, Ja­cob’s wife, tells him. She wor­ries that Sadie might not marry, that their daugh­ter will not be able to stay.

And then the event oc­curs that seems to ful­fill Sadie’s prophe­cies: A so­lar storm dis­rupts the elec­tri­cal grid and the English planes fall from the sky. Ja­cob’s com­mu­nity is not im­mune. They live shoul­der to shoul­der with English neigh­bors. Ja­cob has a busi­ness ar­range­ment with Mike, a man from nearby Lan­caster who sells Ja­cob’s hand­made chairs.

Mike is good-na­turedly frank and out­spo­ken. He lis­tens to talk ra­dio; he is be­set by mod­ern prob­lems from which the Amish are largely in­oc­u­lated. He is go­ing through a di­vorce and a cus­tody bat­tle. He is hav­ing trou­ble with his preg­nant girl­friend. He is vexed by pol­i­tics. Ev­ery month the bishop asks Ja­cob to dis­con­tinue his re­la­tion­ship with Mike, but Ja­cob re­fuses. He be­lieves that God loves Mike.

When the Na­tional Guard asks the Amish to help, they are gen­er­ous, open­ing up their larders, fill­ing trucks with jerky and pre­serves for their un­for­tu­nate neigh­bors. The Plain folk be­gin to hear news of ri­ots and

des­per­a­tion, and it isn’t long be­fore they start hear­ing gun­shots near their farms. Some­thing ter­ri­ble is com­ing.

Wil­liams’ prose is un­or­na­mented and di­rect, like the lives it de­picts. It’s told through the daily jour­nal en­tries Ja­cob makes, mostly brief en­tries that lead us gen­tly to­ward the hor­ror. Ja­cob is con­flicted by his need to record his ex­pe­ri­ences. He left his fa­ther’s stricter or­der in part be­cause writ­ing was con­sid­ered an act of van­ity, es­pe­cially writ­ing in English in­stead of Di­etsch — the Ger­man di­alect spo­ken by Pennsylvania Amish. Ja­cob dreams in English, though it is not “the lan­guage of [his] soul.” This is some­thing else for which he feels shame.

“It is strange, to live in a time like this, when things feel so dan­ger­ous,” Ja­cob writes. “But things have been very hard in the past, too. Ev­ery day, ev­ery day since I have been here in this set­tle­ment, I read from the Mar­tyrs Mir­ror. That old book was a fa­vorite of my fa­ther and es­pe­cially my un­cle who, when he preached, would re­fer again and again to the suf­fer­ings of the mar­tyrs through the ages ….

“All of those sto­ries — of the mar­tyrs, of faith in the cru­cible of suf­fer­ing, of how good Chris­tians have ex­pe­ri­enced and en­dured times of ter­ri­ble tor­ture and pri­va­tion — I re­mem­ber think­ing to my­self, so of­ten, about how far away all of those things seemed. Here we were, and we pros­pered. Our hard work and dili­gence was re­warded by Prov­i­dence. There was food, there was plenty, and our faith was with­out trial. It was easy to be­come pride­ful, or to be­come con­vinced of God’s pro­tec­tion. ...

“Now, though, the time has shifted. The world it­self has shifted. I must trust in my

faith, that it will en­dure this test­ing.

“Is that not the pur­pose of faith?”

These days the pi­ous are of­ten used as sym­bols of hypocrisy or in­flex­i­bil­ity, as mon­strously cer­tain big­ots. Ja­cob is de­vout and firm and a hero for our time. And Wil­liams, who we learn from the jacket bio is a teach­ing el­der in the Pres­by­te­rian Church, who has writ­ten for Omni and Wired as well as The Chris­tian Cen­tury, has pro­duced an im­por­tant and re­mark­ably af­fect­ing first novel.

When the English Fall put me in mind of a quo­ta­tion from Sig­mund Freud, which I looked up in Civ­i­liza­tion and Its Dis­con­tents (1930):

“The el­e­ment of truth be­hind all this, which peo­ple are so ready to dis­avow, is that men are not gen­tle crea­tures who want to be loved, and who at most can de­fend them­selves if they are at­tacked; they are, on the con­trary, crea­tures among whose in­stinc­tual en­dow­ments is to be reck­oned a pow­er­ful share of ag­gres­sive­ness. As a re­sult, their neigh­bor is for them not only a po­ten­tial helper or sex­ual ob­ject, but also some­one who tempts them to sat­isfy their ag­gres­sive­ness on him, to ex­ploit his ca­pac­ity for work with­out com­pen­sa­tion, to use him sex­u­ally with­out his con­sent, to seize his pos­ses­sions, to hu­mil­i­ate him, to cause him pain, to tor­ture and to kill him. Homo ho­mini lu­pus. [Man is wolf to man.]”

Con­sid­er­ing hu­man his­tory, it’s hard to dis­count Freud’s point. When he wrote Civ­i­liza­tion and Its Dis­con­tents (its orig­i­nal Ger­man ti­tle is Das Un­be­ha­gen in der Kul­tur, “The Un­easi­ness in Culture”) Hitler was as­cend­ing to power and World War I was still fresh enough to be called “re­cent.” The blood­i­ness of the 20th cen­tury was just com­ing into full flower.

I ran across Freud’s quote again late in Ewan Fernie’s Shake­speare For Free­dom: Why the Plays Mat­ter (Cam­bridge University Press, $54.95), a se­ri­ous and at times ex­hil­a­rat­ing at­tempt to re­con­sider (per­haps res­cue) Shake­speare from the sort of oblig­a­tory re­spect­ful­ness that ac­crues to ubiq­uity. As with the Bea­tles, it’s of­ten easy to for­get the rad­i­cal na­ture of Shake­speare’s work. A claim can be made that he es­sen­tially in­vented hu­man con­scious­ness and al­lowed us to em­pathize with peo­ple un­like our­selves.

Be­fore Shake­speare, there is no think­ing out loud — hardly any rep­re­sen­ta­tion of think­ing at all. (Maybe a lit­tle in Chaucer.) Shake­speare is the first to show peo­ple brood­ing, pon­der­ing, rolling things over in their minds and mak­ing free choice. We take that for granted now, we as­sume it is the way we have al­ways imag­ined our­selves. But you don’t find that mode be­fore Shake­speare.

Fernie, the chair of Shake­speare stud­ies at the Shake­speare In­sti­tute in Strat­ford-upon-Avon which op­er­ates un­der the aus­pices of the University of Birm­ing­ham, is bent on demon­strat­ing Shake­speare’s con­tin­u­ing vi­tal­ity and use­ful­ness in the world. Fernie points out that Shake­speare is still rel­e­vant be­cause he cre­ated char­ac­ters that are more vividly hu­man than any be­fore or since, and ar­gues that the Bard has had an im­por­tant in­flu­ence on many ex­is­ten­tial and po­lit­i­cal move­ments over the years, in­clud­ing the mid-19th-cen­tury Chartist Move­ment, which sought to give work­ing-class Bri­tons the vote.

Thomas Cooper, a jour­nal­ist in Le­ices­ter, es­tab­lished the Shake­spearean As­so­ci­a­tion of Le­ices­ter Chartists, which used Shake­speare as a kind of Ur text, fash­ion­ing a Shake­spearean hymn book and find­ing in Shake­speare’s life and work an ex­am­ple of how the “humbly born” might at­tain “the realms of high­est grandeur.”

Fernie also touches on Shake­spearean themes of free­dom in 19th-cen­tury Hun­gar­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary La­jos Kos­suth, who sought in­de­pen­dence from Aus­tria; David Garrick’s Shake­speare Ju­bilee of 1769 and Nel­son Man­dela’s affin­ity for a pas­sage in Julius Cae­sar: “Cow­ards die many times be­fore their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Man­dela signed his name next to the pas­sage in the so­called Robben Is­land Shake­speare — a tat­tered edi­tion of the Com­plete Works of Shake­speare that was smug­gled into the prison by Man­dela’s fel­low po­lit­i­cal prisoner Sonny Venka­trath­nam, who dis­guised it in col­or­ful Di­wali cards cel­e­brat­ing the Hindu fes­ti­val of lights, and told the au­thor­i­ties it was a per­mit­ted holy text.

Man­dela as­sumed the book would even­tu­ally be smug­gled out of Robben Is­land and cir­cu­lated through the lib­er­a­tion move­ment.

Freud pops up again in the last chap­ter as Fernie dis­cusses his love of Shake­speare and his fas­ci­na­tion with “what Mac­beth calls ‘black and deep de­sires’.” Freud fa­mously de­vel­oped the Oedi­pus com­plex from his read­ing of Ham­let, and it is tempt­ing to see Freud

as a more pro­saic ana­log of Shake­speare, an idea that Freud con­sid­ered when he ad­mit­ted “the po­ets were here be­fore me.”

Most of what we think about as Freudian psy­chol­ogy is Shake­speare in­ven­tion; Freud cod­i­fied the na­ture that Shake­speare de­scribed.

“Freud, like Shake­speare, in­sists that our de­sires are deep as well as dark,” Fernie writes. “You’re damned if you act on them and damned if you don’t. Their con­tain­ment is also an in­tol­er­a­ble crime against hu­man free­dom, and one which in­evitably leads to psy­chosis. Civ­i­liza­tion is sick, per­haps ter­mi­nally so; what is in­tended to safe­guard our free­doms in fact wrecks them.”

Fernie sees Shake­speare as “deep ther­apy” for the culture, stress­ing the ever-changing na­ture of how we re­late to them: “Shake­spearean char­ac­ter is al­ways made in in­ter­ac­tion, as well as be­fore an au­di­ence.”

This dy­namic na­ture cuts both ways — Shake­speare stirs the hu­man an­i­mal. Don­ald Trump goes un­men­tioned in the book, as does the pro­duc­tion

of Julius Cae­sar that fea­tured a Trump-like em­peror be­ing carved to death.

But he does men­tion the duel­ing per­for­mances of Mac­beth in 1849 of the Amer­i­can ac­tor Ed­win For­rest and the English Shake­spearean Wil­liam Charles Macready re­sulted in the As­tor Place Riot in New York, where more than 20 peo­ple were killed and many in­jured. And he also men­tions John Wilkes Booth, brother of Ed­win Booth, the fore­most Amer­i­can Shake­spearean ac­tor of his time, jump­ing to the stage upon which he of­ten strut­ted in Ford’s The­ater, shout­ing a line Shake­speare at­trib­uted to Bru­tus: Sic sem­per tyran­nis.

So Fernie leaves us with a warning: “The plays … are not in any sim­ple way utopian. They are are po­lit­i­cally un­sta­ble, al­ways in process. If they are some­times eth­i­cally promis­ing, at oth­ers they are un­de­ni­ably dan­ger­ous … What we do or do not make of them, in con­tem­po­rary life and pol­i­tics, is our re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

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