Fall Back Down When I Die: A Novel by Joe Wilkins

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I should have been prepared in my head as I was in my hands. Let that be a lesson to you boy.

Wendall Newman’s cousin Lacy finds herself in serious trouble for charges of possession of methamphetamine, child endangerment and willful neglect. He finds himself caring for her son Rowdy, a troubled 7-year-old little boy with communication delays. Barely getting by himself as a ranch hand, despite his rough surroundings and gruff appearance, Wendall comes to love his nephew and want nothing more than to do right by him. A certain type of poor all his life, he knows all too well the difficulties Rowdy faces, and the many ways the adults have failed him. With his father gone, Wendell was the sole heir of ruin, caring for his sick mother until her death, fatherless. Now he will do anything to give Rowdy the upbringing he deserves.

Verl Newman, Wendall’s father, long ago ran away into the Bull mountains, Montana after committing a murder. In the mean weeks that follow, he survives off the land and writes to his son in the school notebook he grabbed on the run ‘thinking to use for starting fires.’ With the feds on his tail, how could he possibly get this notebook, these words to his boy? “A boy should be able to hear his father always”, and yet they took even that from him.  Wendall killed a wolf, against the laws, the government is a wolf itself, keeping a man from a living, forcing him to cower, beg. When a man comes and turns against his friend, his heart no longer brave, honest what can he expect but violence? What other choice did Verl have than save what was his family’s very livelihood? Not everyone sees Verl’s act as monstrous, some outright admire the courage of his convictions, which echos through the years within a resistance group.

Gillian works as the school counselor and tries to cope with her own loss, raising her daughter alone after her husband Kevin’s murder. Student Tavin, whose family is a part of the Bull Mountain Resistance, has been missing too many days of school, yet it’s impossible to gingerly approach his mother, on alert for any interference from officials. Gillian fears the boy will fall into a cycle of poverty, poisoned by the ‘rural stupidity’ of the men in his life, like so many others. She knows exactly the sort of horrors such beliefs can lead to, how many lives can be destroyed.

 

Maddy, Gillian’s daughter, comes to care for Rowdy, and has more in common with Wendall than she could have imagined. The three will need each other for their very survival as all the stories converge. Good and bad blends, and the bones of the dead rattle into the future of their unfortunate children. It’s a painful tale of family, poverty, the ugly history of inheritance and the tragedy of fate. Yes read it!

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

 

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The Ash Family: A Novel by Molly Dektar

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“Why would you want to leave, when you’ll have more freedom here than anywhere else?” He said. The family’s father, Bay said, was Dice, and Dice would understand me the way a lightning bolt would understand a rod.

At Nineteen years old Berie doesn’t intend to go to college despite the plane ticket to Richmond, Virginia. That is her mother’s plan, not hers. She leads her mother to believe in it, going so far as to say goodbye at the airport, her mother secure in the illusion that she’s left. Ex-boyfriend Isaac doesn’t believe in her hunger for a more essential life, but someone does. All she wants is to leave the bustle and noise of modern day life behind, the path to her desire comes in the form of a stranger she meets at a bus station on her way back to Isaac and Durham, hoping he will let her squat. The scarred stranger’s magnetic presence draws her in, before long she finds herself enthralled by his tales of the Ash Family, named for having started in Asheville, North Carolina. The members all sustain themselves and each other in an old farmhouse in the holler, their own utopia with animals, a vegetable patch and an orchard. “Thirty people and growing”, she could be one of them if the family accepts her, but three days and either you leave or stay forever. Three days, no exceptions.

Everything starts out with such promise, living off the grid among brothers and sisters, what feels cold at first turns into beauty, “I was awestruck under a wild star-smeared sky.” Of course, things fall apart as they always do, rules seem to bend and stretch for some people and cruelty rears it’s ugly head. Why would you ever leave, right, when you are with the people who really love you? Who needs medical care in the fake world when they have Pear and her natural healing ways? Listen, I am all for natural medicine, but I sure wouldn’t take an herb to cure a brain tumor or ignore it if my appendix burst, how about you? I’m more inclusive, nature embracing science, why must it be one or the other?  The problem with utopia is power and control because there always seems to be a leader that wants to give you rules. Being at peace is easy when you don’t have to interact with others and their ideas. Is it freedom if punishment and acceptance is meted out under the critical eye of a ‘father’? Father’s need obedient children.

Berie is a lost soul and for a time, she chooses to acquiesce. “The gale came into me, and blew all my doors and windows open.”  But being blown about by the wind and putting your faith, will into another’s hands never bodes well and surely can’t last. They don’t need anything that nature doesn’t provide, though over time hypocrisy shows itself. The rules don’t always make sense, what begins as a back to earth experience seems more tests of loyalty to the cause. The rot sets in, Berie finds serious flaws and weaknesses within herself and the family. Dice demands sacrifices. This peace loving community is at war with those that would destroy the environment and be the Ash Family’s ruin, even if they must turn on their own people, ignoring illness, letting nature take it’s course… so be it.

Oh boy, will she ever leave? Will she remain a sort of pawn for the ‘father’ of the Ash Family’s plans? How did Bay get those scars, by the by, she wonders. What worked about the novel is that it exposes the ugly side of commune living, while also telling the story of how easy it is, when lost, to latch on to something dangerous. Sometimes searching for a more authentic life can be ruinous, particularly if it means letting go of your will. Berie’s desire for more than what is on offer, her need to journey down an unexplored path is a struggle for many people. The need to be inspired by something bigger than what other’s expect of you burns within us and is at its strongest when you’re young and just beginning to question your place in the world. Berie has other issues that complicate her relationships, Bay seems like a gift from the universe. But her eyes are clouded over with weariness for the world, one she needs to reject, she is so tired of trying so why not hand the wheel over to someone else. It’s easy to remain a child and allow others to push you along, that’s how cults work you know. Believe in something or someone else when you don’t believe in yourself. What can you do when you feel like you don’t fit the times? Don’t go into this novel thinking it’s going to be a happy back to nature story, it turns ugly.

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Simon & Schuster

In The Midst Of Innocence: A Novel Deborah Hining

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Jake Hatton came by today, looking for a pint of whiskey. I told him never to come to the house, but to hide out in the woods by the creek and wait until he sees me out in the yard. He can whistle a hooty-owl call to me, and I will meet him down by the big  sycamore.

It is the Great Depression, 10-year-old Pearl Wallace lives in the mountains of rural Tennessee. In this holler, she makes money by skimming off her daddy’s homemade whiskey, in a time when prohibition is in effect, this dabbling in criminal activity is a bit of a worry for her, after all Al Capone has the law after him and he bootlegs, and it’s a sin but going without nice shoes and being unable to give much-needed to gifts to her loved ones makes it a sort of necessity, if you will. Her best friend Darlene is a ‘white Negro’, whose step daddy is a mean bully, beating on her and her mamma. She fears for her daily, even if she is a catholic!

Emily Weston is a missionary come to save the hillbillies  from their  savage ignorance, to be a holy guiding light to the boys and girls of the holler so they can one day become God faring young men and women. She has led a privileged life in the city among the elite, and while heart is in the right place, she is the one blinded by ignorance. She will be shocked by their sins of drunkenness and humming, Halloween celebrations. The charm of this novel is that the telling alternates between both Pearl and Emily. Pearl makes is delightfully humorous and tender.  Emily’s perspective is given through letters to her parents, much more reserved than the letters to her sister, and letters to Jonathan whom is in love with her. Pearl’s voice is heard through her journal entries for class (Miss Emily’s idea) and her own private, grittier version that she writes for herself. Her childlike innocence in not understanding why ‘kilts’ would scare ‘colored folks’ perfectly expresses childish naiveté. Emily will come off her high horse as she begins to see just how knowledgable these ‘hillbillies’ really are, their godliness is evident in their community, brotherhood. Some speak French, teach it to their children, not so uneducated as Emily thinks. Just like anywhere else, you have the good, bad and the ugly.

Emily is much more likable as the teacher becomes the student. Young herself, her heart is lost in confusion and she is all mixed up, with her feelings toward Jonathan in particular. Pearl wants so bad to be good herself, and is ashamed of her anger and sins (stealing and selling his moonshine), especially when she thinks life would be easier without her daddy and his drinking. To say times are lean is an enormous understatement, but the people of this community pull together to survive. Not everyone has someone to protect them, and sometimes standing up for someone who is different can endanger your own family. Pearl and her family have courage, even with the threat of violence, Pearl cannot allow fear to stand in the way of solving Darlene and her mamma’s troubles. Emily will be a changed woman, fall in love with the very people she once held in scorn, set out to save. There is a murder, and sometimes lies are necessary to save others.

Beautifully written, I felt like I was in the holler myself. I have a tender spot for mountain fiction, I’ve likely mentioned that so often that people are sick of hearing it. This book is a delight, but isn’t as light as it seems, it deals with some weighty topics of  bygone days. Most people will love Pearl, she is a fierce little thing!

Publication Date: April 17, 2018

Light Messages Publishing