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Joe Wilkins’ new book has themes that hit close to home

By Staff | Mar 17, 2019

There are perks to being a writer with other writer friends. You sometimes get to view their work before it hits the shelves.

Recently, one of my college mentors, Joe Wilkins, wrote a new book called “Fall Back Down When I Die.” It just hit the shelves, and I could not be more honored to be able to read it beforehand.

I met Joe at Waldorf College, now Waldorf University. He was one of my creative writing professors, and quickly became a close mentor and friend. He actually was the fella who nudged me to follow my heart and life-long passion of writing and switch majors. I even had the honor of being one of his student teachers while I finished up my creative writing degree.

Now, Joe is known for his poetry. I adore his poetry. He has such an incredible vocabulary and an extensive understanding of language. He truly does beautiful work with words.

This book is his first novel. “Fall Back Down When I Die” is such an incredible journey through a handful of characters, and echoes many of the small town issues we face in our own communities.

The book is based in a small Eastern Montana town where two small school districts are vying to keep their student populations up (sound familiar?), and through the eyes of these vibrant, yet tragic, characters we see the inner machinations of small-town life not only beat these cast of characters up and spit them out, but we get to see how some of these characters also rise up from their own ashes.

Wendell, one of the main characters, is a young man raised in a ranching atmosphere who keeps to himself but loves to read and now as an adult, is given guardianship of his cousin’s son out of the blue. His cousin, Lacy, battles with methamphetamine. Meth wins, as it always seems to, and she is sent to prison, while her son is sent into Wendell’s care. Again, that seems like very familiar territory for us around Faribault County, does it not?

Wendell’s seven-year-old second-cousin, named Rowdy, is developmentally delayed and, with no other family able to care for him, is given to Wendell who, in my opinion, can hardly take care of himself.

We see the two struggle both together, and separately; their struggles come to life in each other as Rowdy is sent to school, and as Wendell recalls his own memories of his time as a high school basketball star struggling at home.

Throughout this book, we readers are given letters from Wendell’s father, Verle, who shot a man once upon a time and evades authorities throughout the Montana wilderness. These eerie letters give a smattering, a taste, of what Verle’s skewed perspective of the world is as he further and further detaches from reality.

All the while, we get to know Gillian, an assistant principal at one of the aforementioned dwindling school districts in a town called Colter. She’s a single mom who recently lost her husband and is continuing to navigate her job with purpose while still being a parent to a teenage daughter, and is still processing through her own grief. I am sure there are many folks around our area who can feel Gillian’s plight as she does what she can to help one of her students whose step-father leads a tactical political (and educational) resistance.

Through Joe’s writing, I can see the colors in the Montana sky, the sharp textures in the dirt and stone, the dry landscapes, and the harsh undertones of the small town agendas driven by pride, ego, and addictions around the cast.

Again, I cannot tell you how similar some of these themes in this story resonate in our own community, and though you may be on the BEA Reads kick right now, I would highly suggest Joe Wilkins’ “Fall Back Down When I Die” as your next pick.

It is so neat to watch one of your mentors grow in his own writing more and more with every publication and it certainly makes one Blue Earth-based writer eager to get her own publication going.