When Joe Wilkins' mind wanders, it often takes him to his boyhood home in eastern Montana. 

"The place is not done with me," he said Tuesday in a phone interview to discuss new novel "Fall Back Down When I Die." "...I feel that landscape in me every day. I think about it every day."

The writer was raised in the Bull Mountains north of Billings, what he refers to as "The Big Dry." Wilkins spent 19 years of his life in the same farmhouse. Wilkins' memoir "The Mountain and the Fathers" describes a youth as a fatherless son.

"In some ways, Montana will always be the primal landscape," he said. "It will always be the place that bore me."

Wilkins is now a father who lives in "The Big Wet" of western Oregon with his family. There, he heads the creative writing program at Linfield College in McMinnville. But he's not ready to write about the present. He sees the big oaks and red cedars of Oregon and wishes he could climb above them, to survey the landscape, to "get that sky pulled into perspective." Even with near-daily precipitation, Wilkins finds himself hoping for a little more rain, a little more growth. Each thought recalls the sparsity of his youth.  

"I get really proprietary about raspberries in the front yard," he said, describing attempting to pick every last one and make them into jam."

Memory, Wilkins explained, often leads to questions like "what if?" or wishes things could have turned out differently somehow. Writing of that place allows these thoughts to unfold. He is working on two other novels exploring these ideas. 

"I do think we have to write our own truths, our own stories," Wilkins said.

In "Fall Back Down When I Die," Wilkins' latest story and first novel, we enter the world of Wendell Newman, a young ranch hand with a pocketful of debt who becomes the caretaker for his cousin's son, 7-year-old Rowdy Burns. The story weaves in the a manhunt for a murderer among the backdrop of the state's first legal wolf hunt. Through it all, Wendell is tested in his ability to escape the violent past that led to his father's death and to protect the boy in his care. 

"With a passion only matched by compassion, Joe Wilkins has crafted a novel that perfectly explicates the clash between the cowboys and ranchers of the old West and the environmentalists and seekers of the new. This is a book about America: its violence, its traumas, its entitlements and its stultifying age," wrote "Cowboys Are My Weakness" author Pam Houston.

Wilkins once had a professor who told him "all art is an argument of sorts." Though he describes the book's argument as nuanced and textured, "Fall Back Down When I Die" seeks to point a way forward toward community and compassion, toward understanding. 

Rachel Hergett is the editor of Ruckus, the arts and culture publication of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She can be reached at rhergett@dailychronicle.com or (406) 582-2603.

Rachel Hergett can be reached at rhergett@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2603. Hergett is on Twitter at @hergett.