Rowdy Burns doesn’t look like much when he first meets ranch hand Wendell Newman.

He’s a silent slip of a boy, 7 years old, hollow-cheeked and hollowed-out by trauma—a mother struggling with drugs, and days spent alone in an empty apartment. He’s “the tiniest little thing for miles,” Wendell thinks. And yet Rowdy becomes the gravitational force that draws together two families long torn apart by rural class and political divisions that ultimately erupted in murder.

Joe Wilkins’ gripping debut novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, opens soon after Rowdy’s arrival in Wendell’s care, in a trailer in a hardscrabble corner of eastern Montana, during the first year of the Obama administration. Wendell is just 24 himself, a bookish former high school basketball star who now works for the wealthy rancher leasing his family’s land, struggling to pay down back taxes and his dead mother’s medical bills. Rowdy is the child of Wendell’s cousin; he drums his fingers on his cheeks and is prone to fits. But the two, sundered from their closest relatives, begin to fuse into a new little family.

Wendell teaches Rowdy how to set and run a trapline, lets him ride along in the grain truck, and enlists his help with calves. Wendell begins to find in himself the father figure absent from his own life; Rowdy, though he struggles in school, calms down and starts to open in the embrace of Wendell’s easy faith in his competence and potential. Sometimes, he even finds his voice.

Wendell and Rowdy’s unfolding relationship is the central thread of three interwoven storylines set against the backdrop of the Bull Mountains, the landscape where Wilkins grew up and the subject of his equally gorgeous memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers. The second follows Gillian Houlton and her teenage daughter, Maddy. An idealistic school administrator, Gillian goes out of her way to keep local kids from getting derailed by desperate circumstances. She winds up finding her way back to teaching, her true calling, when she takes Rowdy on as a special-ed student. After meeting Wendell in a local dive bar, Maddy embraces Rowdy’s cause, bringing him books and a winter coat—and growing closer to Wendell. She has no idea that the two of them share a dark past. The third storyline reveals that darkness, piece by piece, through a series of notebook entries written years before by Wendell’s father, Verl.

Wrestling with the loss of his public-land grazing leases and the subsequent loss of his cattle, Verl shot a wolf and buried it in a ravine. He blamed the federal government for the predator’s return; to him, it exemplified the forces that had stolen everything from him, the land and wealth earned by his birthright and the work of his hands. So when the game warden confronted him, Verl shot him, too, then abandoned his family and vanished into the wilderness, into “his” Bull Mountains, forever, chronicling his flight as he went.

The game warden was Verl’s friend, Maddy’s father and Gillian’s husband. In a heartbeat, Wendell, Maddy and Gillian had lost the most important men in their lives to a myth of masculine self-sufficiency and settler entitlement that, in Wilkins’ telling, runs through the veins of their homeland like a drug.

As their lives twine together around Rowdy, that violent mythos threatens to tear them apart yet again: The first legal wolf hunt in Montana is coming up, and a right-wing militia movement that sees Verl as a hero plans to use the event to launch the opening salvo of their revolution. When they turn to Wendell as Verl’s emissary, Wendell must decide what kind of man he wants to be, and what kind of world he wants for Rowdy.

The land itself—almost a living character in the book, rendered both beautiful and ominous in Wilkins’ poetic prose—leads him to his final answer, and to the book’s spellbinding conclusion. This is big, dry country that defies irrigation; turns farmhouses into peeling, yawing shacks; and pushes families like Wendell’s own out of business and into poverty.

“It wasn’t the EPA or the BLM making it all of a sudden hard,” Wendell realizes. “It had always been hard. That’s why the wolves were coming back. They were built for it. They didn’t worry about what was owed to them. They lived how the land demanded.”

Even Verl arrived at this realization before he melted into mystery and dust among the dry needles of the mountains’ dry forest. In one of the notebook’s last entries, he acknowledged as much, writing and then crossing out, as if he couldn’t live with the conclusion: “If I were to pick up a rock or stone out here and call it mine, it would only fall back down when I die.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News. Sarah Gilman writes and draws from Portland, Ore.

Fall Back Down When I Die

By Joe Wilkins

Little, Brown and Company

256 pages, $27