Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins
Little, Brown and Company: 3/12/19
eBook review copy; 256 pages
Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins is a highly recommended politically laden drama set in Montana.
Wendell Newman, 24, is a ranch hand in Eastern Montana who is
seriously in debt after his mother's death. He owes back taxes on the
land he inherited and is paying off his mother's medical bills. When a
social worker shows up, Wendell learns he is the only relative of
Rowdy Burns, who is the son of Wendell's
incarcerated cousin. Rowdy, who is mute and likely on the autism
spectrum, moves in with Wendell and the two form a strong bond.
There is trouble brewing in Montana, between the
cowboys and ranchers of the old West and the environmentalists,
with the first legal wolf hunt, and increasing regulations being
enforced on BLM land, and increasing state involvement with the rural
families. As much as Wendell wants to stay out of it, he is a part of it
simply because his father, Verl, took a stand years earlier and killed a
man. Then Verl went into hiding and on the run, leaving his family
The story unfolds between the point-of-view of three characters and
chapters alternate between the voices of Verl, Wendell, and Gillian. The
novel opens with the first person account of Verl, on the run and
evading the law in the Big Dry mountains. His chapters consist of what
he is writing to his son in one of Wendell's notebooks that he grabbed
when leaving. Wendell and Gillian's narratives are told in third person
accounts. Gillian is an assistant principal and counselor, who wants to
help but also allows her own judgmental opinions of "rural stupidity" to
color her actions. It was her husband, Kevin, that Verl killed years
earlier. At the end of the novel two other voices are heard from.
The writing is beautifully descriptive and poetic as it carefully and
skillfully captures the setting and the characters. The characters are
all well developed and precisely depicted as individuals with their own
beliefs and feelings. The novel is slow-paced at the beginning, taking
time to describe the land and people as the story leads, inevitably to
the haunting and heart-breaking climax.
All the characters are survivors and suffering from emotional damaged
in some way. Wendell and Rowdy are wonderful characters and immediately
captured my heart. Gillian, I must admit, caused conflicting emotions.
She annoyed me since she just seemed to be so opinionated and
judgemental about the people she was supposed to be helping, but I
alternately had compassion for her and her own struggles.
My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.