Twenty-four-year-old Wendell Newman is having a rough go of things when we first meet him in Fall Back Down When I Die, the heart-wrenching debut novel from Pushcart Prize winner Joe Wilkins. Wendell lost his father at an early age, his mother has just died after a long illness that’s left him with overdue medical bills, he owes back taxes on his parents’ property, and he has less than $100 in his bank account. His life is as bleak as the “bruised and dark” mountains of Montana in which he lives.
When a social worker unexpectedly places Wendell’s 7-year-old nephew into his care after the boy’s mother is incarcerated on drug charges, Wendell has good reason to fall further into despair. The boy, Rowdy Burns, is traumatized himself. He won’t speak, is “developmentally delayed,” and he has uncontrollable fits. But Wendell, who remains haunted by his father’s violent death years ago, sees something of himself in his young charge and a chance, perhaps, to give Rowdy the life he couldn’t have. He enrolls Rowdy in school, takes the boy to work with him and shares lessons learned from the land and wilderness.
Wilkins, who grew up in rural Montana where this story is set, details the pair’s growing bond and sense of hope with vivid, heartfelt strokes—before, just as powerfully, pulling the rug out from under them. On one front, an overprotective teacher threatens to separate them in the mistaken belief that Wendell may be abusing the boy. And on another, neighboring ranchers opposed to government overreach onto their properties bring their conflicts to Wendell’s doorstep. Chaos and tragedy ensue, placing Wendell and Rowdy in a desperate bid for survival, while ultimately asking if it’s possible to escape the fate—and the land—they were born into.