Wendell Newman, a young ranch hand in Montana, has recently lost his mother, leaving him an orphan, as his father met a violent end more than a decade earlier. His bank account holds less than a hundred dollars, and he owes back taxes on what remains of the land his parents owned, as well as money for the surgeries that failed to save his mother’s life.
Into this situation comes seven-year-old Rowdy Burns, the illegitimate son of Wendell’s cousin, who is incarcerated after falling prey to addiction. Traumatized, Rowdy is mute and damaged. Caring for him will be a test of Wendell’s will and resolve, and yet he comes to love the boy more than he ever thought possible. That love will be stretched to the breaking point during the first legal wolf hunt in Montana in more than thirty years, when a murder results in a manhunt, and Wendell finds himself on the wrong side of a disaffected fringe group, hoping both to protect Rowdy and to avoid the same violent fate that claimed his father.
This dark and haunting debut novel is an unforgettable tale of sacrificial love, with two characters who win the reader’s heart from the first page to the last.
“This is just a magnificent work of art on every level. I read it twice—first, gripped by the story, which is both intimate and sweeping. Then I went right back to the beginning to read it slower and marvel over the rugged poetry. Wilkins takes the reader deep into the Bull Mountains, where tensions surrounding land rights and hunting regulations turn violent. We meet unforgettable characters—a man who doesn’t feel ready to care for a child, a teacher who doesn’t trust the child is in good hands, and a group of disaffected traditionalists who feel squeezed out of the only life they know. Every character is tangled up in relationships with each other that go back generations, all tied to the memories and the history of this land. The result is a story that surprises with compassion, mercy and sacrifice.” – Susan Henderson, citation for the High Plains Book Award
“Wilkins delivers a Shakespearean mix of drama and mortal danger in crisp and beautiful language…He renders the effects of violence and trauma on the daily machinations of human lives…The world of the novel, rural Montana, is presented with the native realism of someone familiar with the people, language, landscape, and controversies of the ‘way out here’…He captures the social dynamic of communities of few people spread over many swaths of land…This novel instills hope. Wilkins has produced a remarkable book filled with characters who, despite their inherent differences over how to exist on the land, remind us of the myriad reasons that every person might be loved.” – The Oregonian
“Wilkins’s propulsive debut, Fall Back Down When I Die, takes place in and around the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana during the Obama presidency, when anti-government paranoia escalated into sporadic crescendos of violence. [..]Mr. Wilkins charts that course with skill and concision, [and] though he too stresses the persistence of kindness and community—the village-wide effort to look after Wendell’s young charge brings out the best in everyone—the enduring depiction in Fall Back Down When I Die is of a small-scale civil war pitting towns, neighbors, childhood friends and family members against one another. Blood ties to the land result in generation-spanning blood debts. The Bull Mountain Resistance plans to announce itself to the state with an illegal wolf hunt, a cruel and bloody act of revenge dressed up as self protection—and a fitting symbol for the deep-lying hatreds Mr. Wilkins portrays.” – Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“A tense story delivered in sharp, evocative sentences, Fall Back Down When I Die captures what feel like eternal tensions of land, loyalty, and vengeance. . .Wilkins is also a talented poet, and his sense of sound and line seeps into his prose. . .He has a fine sense of pacing, imbuing the book’s final quarter with an almost dizzying suspense. He’s at his most poetic when setting the scene with descriptions that create a palpable atmosphere. . .These are melodies of pain and penance — the right song for a novel about a riven land.”―Nick Ripatrazone, National Review
“Gorgeous…Spellbinding…The land itself is almost a living character in the book, rendered both beautiful and ominous in Wilkins’s poetic prose…A gripping debut.”―Sarah Gilman, High Country News
“In his first novel, shorty story writer, poet, and memoirist Wilkins writes of hardscrabble life on the northern Great Plains with mesmerizing power, creating characters with rich if troubled interior lives who are desperate for agency and haunted by absent fathers. Wendell and Rowdy’s slowly blossoming relationship is as lovely and breathtaking as the book’s tragic ending is inevitable and devastating. Suffused with a sense of longing, loss, and the desire for change — asking deep questions about our place in the landscape and what, if anything, we are owed — this is a remarkable and unforgettable first novel.” – Booklist (starred review)
A heart-rending tale of family, love and violence… Through these characters, in a prose that can hum gently, then spark like a fire, Wilkins fashions a Western fable which spirals down to a tragic end. Following in the literary roots of Montanans Jim Harrison and Rick Bass, Wilkins packs a lot of story and stylistic wallop into this gripping, outstanding novel.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[Fall Back Down When I Die] achieves an undeniable cumulative emotional power as the fates of its memorable characters play out. This is an accomplished first novel, notable in particular for its strong depiction of the timeless landscape of Montana’s big sky country.” – Publishers Weekly
“Wilkins’s novel feels insightful amid the ongoing debate over public land and legal rights, but it’s also timeless, and it treads the same kind of territory as writers like Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig, digging into quiet stories of people living close to the land.”―Heather Hansman, Outside
“To read Joe Wilkins’s first novel is to spend time in eastern Montana, to feel the sharp wind cutting across the cedar ridges, through the sagebrush and bunchgrass, kicking up dust that gathers into grit at the corner of your eyes. It is to hear the sweet, languid whistles of the meadowlarks in the fields. It is to feel “the gravel and the ruts and the old cracked tires” beneath you and to see, above you, always, the wide sky, its “whole box of colors” and its “extravagant stars,” that pull of the sublime to lift your gaze from the intractable earth. And it is to know how hard-earned the beauty is. Wilkins achieves a rich evocation of place through seasoned language, tough and tender like the steak the characters are always eating. It is a landscape where they chew on their trouble, pick old bones, are gnawed at by their losses.”―Holly Haworth, Orion Magazine
“There isn’t a wrong note in Wilkins’s novel. He manages to pull off the development of characters simultaneous with a growing sense of unease; the storm is becoming visible on the horizon…Wilkins is evolving into one of our best American writers.”―Chris La Tray, The Missoulian
“Nuanced and textured…Fall Back Down When I Die seeks to point a way forward toward community and compassion, toward understanding.”―Rachel Hergett, Bozeman Daily Chronicle
“Powerful…This is a story of realistic, complex characters whose lives intersect on a big canvas — as big as eastern Montana…Joe Wilkins infuses his novel with a sense of personal attachment to both the history and current realities of life and conflict across the vast landscape.” – Lewiston Tribune
“Stunning, haunting, and complex…Wilkins’s combination of vibrant language and characterization elevates the novel…he forces readers to see beyond the stereotypes of rural America and embrace the characters as sophisticated and dynamic individuals…Wilkins’s gifts as a seasoned poet and memoirist shine through in his use of figurative language, imagery, sentence fragments, and the way he builds up and tears down the threads of family. Fall Back Down When I Die is a timely addition to the literature of the West. It is a direct and unflinching representation of the way people, land, politics, and myth tangle with each other at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”―Andrew Jones, Split Rock Review
“A masterpiece. Lean and authentic, this twenty-first century western captures what so many rural Americans on the margins are feeling; righteous anger and bitter disconnection, powerlessness and rugged pride. And yet, Wilkins has endowed his unforgettable cast of characters with humanity, gentleness, grace, and hard-won poetry. In prose as rugged and beautiful as the story’s Montana setting, Joe Wilkins has written one of the better novels I’ve read in years. An absolutely stunning book in every way.” – Nickolas Butler, internationally best-selling author of Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men
“In an electric narrative that busts out in a rare kind of rural poetry when you least expect it, this brilliant novel gives us hard-pressed country people trying to make a life in a beautiful but unforgiving landscape among neighbors and family who, thanks to every political disinformation machine from Fox News to the Koch brothers to the Citizens United judges, have slid us from civility to slander, facts to lies, law to vigilantism, and now answer the Gospel call to compassion with their arsenals. Fall Back Down When I Die places red state zeitgeist and grey wolves squarely in its sights, then shoots both, to my grateful amazement, with profound understanding and compassion. Thank heaven for Joe Wilkins’ voice of mercy calling out in the post-Western night.” —David James Duncan, author of The River Why and The Brothers K
“With passion matched only by his compassion, Joe Wilkins has crafted a novel that perfectly explicates the clash between the cowboys and ranchers of the old west and the environmentalists and seekers of the new. No polemic, Fall Back Down When I Die is populated by vibrant characters drawn with fairness and deep heart, boys and men, girls and women who will get under your skin and stay there, and vivid descriptions of the Montana landscape that are spot on and swoon-worthy. Finally, this is book about America, its violence, its traumas, its entitlements and its stultifying rage.” -Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness and Deep Creek
“Joe Wilkins is a writer of great power and heart, and Fall Back Down When I Die is a riveting and timely novel.”―Jess Walter, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins
“Joe Wilkins has risen to a very special peak with this heartrending novel of hard living and lonesome hope in the vast American landscape. I cannot praise it enough.” – Luis Alberto Urrea, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the national bestsellers The House of Broken Angels and The Hummingbird’s Daughter
“The poetry of this beautiful novel isn’t only in the language—and it’s certainly in that—but also in Joe Wilkins’s keen understanding of the Bull Mountains in eastern Montana, of the people who have left their mark on the land there, or tried to erase it, and of the mysterious complexities of the human heart that drive us to one side of the law or the other.” – Elizabeth Crook, author of The Which Way Tree.