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Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins

Published by Little, Brown and Company on March 12, 2019

Fall Back Down When I Die takes place in and near the Bull Mountains in Montana. It follows three primary characters who connect to each other in ways that become clear by the novel’s midpoint.

Vern is determined to live in the mountains as a free man after committing a crime. He tells his story in the form of a letter to his son. Most of Vern’s letters are rants about the perceived injustice that has been (or will be) done to him because of his insistence that he had the right to do as he pleased on his own land.

At some point after Wendell Newman becomes a young adult, his mother dies, leaving him a trailer and a mortgage on their mountain farmland. A social worker places a seven-year-old named Rowdy Burns with Wendell because Rowdy’s mother Lacy is Wendell’s cousin and was like a sister to him before she became a drug addict and then a prisoner. Rowdy was left alone in Lacy’s apartment for a week before social services took custody of him. Rowdy has developmental and behavioral issues that Wendell isn’t well equipped to handle, but he’s willing to do his best because he knows what it means to be neglected.

Gillian Houlton is a widow; her daughter Maddy is a high school senior. Gillian is an assistant principal in a town that consists of churches, saloons, and empty storefronts. She sees local kids growing up in rural poverty, living off rural welfare (farm programs, government grazing leases), joining self-proclaimed militias and White Identity movements, doing willfully stupid things that land them in jail or lead to an early death, proudly eschewing education and voting against their own interests. The principal, on the other hand, would rather sacrifice a kid than make redneck parents mad, because they might begin homeschooling and the school cannot sustain a significant loss of pupils.

Gillian’s husband, a game warden, was the victim of Bull Mountains violence a dozen years earlier. Gillian is sick of violent and ignorant men who believe they have the moral right to violate the law without considering the consequences to their families, to the environment, or to future generations. She sees eastern Montana (other than Billings) as “a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars, a sick sinkhole of environmental degradation, lack of education, liquor, methamphetamine, and broken families” while working Montanans who value education spend their time trying to clean up the mess. As a teacher, she’s frustrated with parents who condemn their children to a lifetime of ignorance and squalor. Anyone who gains an appreciation of the rest of world is condemned as “forgetting where they came from.”

Fall Back Down When I Die exposes the ignorant selfishness of people who think they are entitled by land ownership and mistaken notions of personal freedom to disregard laws that apply equally to every member of society. Yet the novel is not a political diatribe. Regardless of the merit that land use regulations have, they can make life for difficult for people whose businesses are affected by them, as the novel illustrates in the form of a very decent rancher who is just trying to make a good life for his family and employees.

The novel also has a lesson to teach regarding the peril of making assumptions about people because of how or where they live. Gillian has good reason to be angry with Montanans on the far right, but the story teaches that judging people based on stereotypes leads to misjudgments, no matter where the stereotypes fall on the political spectrum. Whether the hater is on the left or right, hate destroys.

Gillian and Wendell are constructed in satisfying depth, while characters who play significant but smaller roles are surprisingly complex. Perhaps the story’s message is a bit heavy-handed, but the message is important. The plot builds tension effectively until it reaches a surprising climax. The story is sad in the way that life is often sad, and hopeful in the way that life needs to be so that decent people don’t give up on humanity.


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