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Joe Wilkins, Pushcart Prize winner and a finalist for the PEN Center USA Journalism Award and National Magazine Award, has written a dark and haunting debut novel for our time. Wilkins brings Montana and the American West to life with the same authenticity of Daniel Woodrell’s Ozarks and Ron Rash’s Appalachia. With Fall Back Down When I Die, set in eastern Montana ranch country, Wilkins gives us a beautiful tale of love and sacrifice and bonds that can’t be broken as he shares the story of Wendell Newman and the abandoned boy put in his care. Brought to life with rich and vivid brushstrokes, Wilkins’s characters will win you over from the moment you meet them. Wendell, a young ranch hand, is living in a state of chronic despair. He’s recently lost his mother, leaving him an orphan. His father met a violent end more than a decade earlier. The list of Wendell’s woes goes on—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 couldn’t save his mother’s life. In short, the American Dream has failed him.
But a young boy, seven-year-old Rowdy Burns, suddenly enters his life and gives Wendell new purpose. Rowdy is the illegitimate son of Wendell’s incarcerated cousin. Traumatized, the boy is mute and emotionally damaged. But Rowdy stretches the bounds of Wendell’s heart. His newfound love reaches its breaking point during the first legal wolf hunt in Montana in more than thirty years. Wendell finds himself on the wrong side of a disaffected fringe group, and a murder in the small community ignites a desperate chase. His only hope is to protect Rowdy while trying to avoid the same violence that claimed his own father.
Joe Wilkins, who grew up in the rural ranch country of Montana, in the very county in which this novel takes place, is a lyrical storyteller who writes with deep familiarity about the equal parts beauty and brutality in the American West and about the social barriers that act as walls of division. He looks at what it means to be born where we are, simply by chance and fate, and to misunderstand others when peering over the divide, instinctually distrusting one another across these vast distances.