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Tell the Wolves I’m Home

May 13, 2018

At the library, I came across a copy of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, and the title rang a bell so I picked it up and started reading it. Then I remembered that I’d heard about it at both Reading the End and Rhapsody in Books. Jenny at Reading the End calls it literary fiction, although I don’t think it has the “lasting” part for what I define as literature. It’s very much a book of its time and place, which is the early 1980’s in and around New York City.

I graduated from college in 1982, which means I had friends, good ones, who died of AIDS very young. So I went into reading this book with a chip on my shoulder, angry about the naivete of the first-person narrator, who is 14 and still being sheltered by her parents, and furious with the smugness and presumption of the parents, who deny her uncle’s partner any share in their family life, even the bitter solace of attending his funeral.

The narrator’s name is June, and as the story begins she and her sister Greta are sitting for a portrait painted by her uncle Finn, who is dying of AIDS. Although they know he has AIDS, mostly because their mother doesn’t want them to borrow his chapstick, they know very little about his life except that he is a famous painter who teaches them to appreciate beautiful things. June, in the way of fourteen-year-olds, believes that she appreciates them more than her mother and sister, but as the story unfolds, she finds out that she is less singular than she wanted to believe.

Finn’s death comes early (both in the story and in his life), and we’re told that “my mother had arranged for the funeral to be held at a funeral home in our town instead of in the city, where all of Finn’s friends lived. There was no argument about it. It felt like she was trying to gather him up. Like she was trying to keep Finn all to herself.” We see Finn’s partner standing alone outside the funeral home and the girls’ father directing them to tell him “if you see that man come in” and adding that it’s “for your mother’s and your grandmother’s sake.” We see Greta, June’s sister, stopping outside the door to the funeral home and saying “in a loud clear voice” that “he’s the guy who killed Uncle Finn.” And then we see that “he’d already turned to go.” I was about ready to stop reading at this point. I couldn’t sympathize with such meanness.

Later I picked it back up, though, and took some hope for June’s redemption from the part where she says “there’s just something beautiful about walking on snow that nobody else has walked on. It makes you believe you’re special, even though you know you’re not.”

The title of the book comes from the portrait of Greta and June, which Finn has wryly titled “Tell the Wolves I’m Home.” It’s a gift from him to the daughters of the sister that chose to be one of the wolves pursuing him through the darkness, rather than waiting in one of the lighted windows of home.

We see the girls’ mother pressuring her older daughter, Greta, into making use of her talents and we realize that it’s because of her own regret over wasting her talent, the same kind of talent that her brother nurtured and that eventually made him famous. She has raised her daughters to believe that “life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half that size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn’t be a mother….Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more.”

We see the elaborate ways Finn sought to bring his devastated partner, Toby, together with his devasted niece, June. He knew that he’d have to be explicit, so he left them both notes asking them to look after each other.

Because her parents have no idea how AIDS is transmitted and are so determined to shelter their teenaged daughters, June thinks that her attempts to reach out to Toby aren’t part of a normal life: “It was normal things Greta wanted me to confess to. Boyfriends and sex and crushes. Things we might have in common. All I had was a strange man in the city, and secret trips to Playland, and pleas for help from the dead.”

There’s an interesting subplot involving Toby and the girls and their mother painting small objects over parts of Finn’s painting of the two of them, speaking to each other and to Finn through art. By the end, they’re ready to let go of what they added to his portrait and, because Toby has given her Finn’s sketches for the portrait, June even learns to look at the “negative space” and see what is there.

I love the moment when Toby finally gets to explain to June why his parents have hidden his existence from her, and his answer to her question about why her mother and Finn couldn’t have talked it all out: “You get into habits. Ways of being with certain people.” That seems true, and it’s that kind of moment in the novel that kept me reading.

Well, along with June’s gradual redemption. She is finally able to realize
“that if Finn were still alive, Toby and I wouldn’t be friends at all. If Finn hadn’t caught AIDS, I would never even have met Toby. That strange and awful thought swirled around in my buzzy head. Then something else occurred to me. What if it was AIDS that made Finn settle down? What if even before he knew he had it, AIDS was making him slower, pulling him back to his family, making him choose to be my godfather. It was possible that without AIDS I would never have gotten to know Finn or Toby. There would be a big hole filled with nothing in place of all those hours and days I’d spent with them. If I could time-travel, could I be selfless enough to stop Finn from getting AIDS? Even if it meant I would never have him as my friend? I didn’t know. I had no idea how greedy my heart really was.”

We find out how greedy June is at the end of her story, when her actions kill Toby, a kind of ironic twist on what she was told about him “killing” Finn at the beginning. Toby goes willingly, sacrificing what is left of his life out of love for June, and teaching her more about what love is, in the process.

It’s a lovely story about fearful and ignorant people. It shows what we can destroy through fear—fear of unleashing our talent and our feelings in the world, and fear of catching a disease that we didn’t understand much about at the time this novel was written.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2018 5:40 am

    I’m so glad you returned to this. I loved it so much! Although I agree, it was hard to get past the awfulness of the attitudes and ignorance about AIDS. But I remember that time well and I thought the author paints a pretty good portrait of prejudice, as well as of love.

    • May 19, 2018 3:50 pm

      It made me wonder what kind of world we’d be living in now if all those talented people who died of AIDS in the 80’s were still alive and making their marks in the bloom of full maturity in their chosen fields.

  2. May 13, 2018 10:55 am

    A beautiful review of a book about such a tough subject. I can’t read it – living with CFS, knowing the few doctors who understand have said they’d rather get AIDS, is too much of a trigger (I don’t have many triggers). But I’m glad I got to know this book a little through your words.

    • May 19, 2018 3:51 pm

      Wow. Hard to believe a doctor would actually say that.

      • May 20, 2018 3:54 am

        A whole bunch of them do – because they undertand what it is like to live amidst people who get energy from theri bodies. Those are the GOOD doctors. The other won’t admit it exists, or will ell you it’s all in your head,

  3. May 13, 2018 10:58 am

    It always fascinates me to see how individually people react to the same piece of work. I did not see this novel in any of the ways you did! I loved the plot between the two sisters especially – their growing apart, their misunderstandings, their need for each other hidden under unintentional cruelty, their finally growing back together. I didn’t see this as being about June’s redemption – she was only fourteen! – but simply her growing ability to love deeply and freely. I saw the novel as being intentionally dated (it was written about the 80s in 2012, after all) but carrying a universal theme about all that we don’t know – perhaps because of youth, or feelings of rejection, or current cultural norms, or even science) – but the ways that live can carry us through to a larger self. Did you end up liking the book? I loved it.

    • May 19, 2018 3:53 pm

      I wasn’t especially charmed by the sister subplot; it seemed a bit over-simplified to me. But you’re right about how the novel is intentionally dated. It captures the fear of that time well.
      I did like reading the book; I kept coming back to it.

  4. May 13, 2018 8:25 pm

    You finished reading it! I always love reading your reviews because we come at books from such totally different angles half the time. More than half the time! Maybe always idk. Anyway — I’m younger than June but not old enough to have known people well who died of AIDS (a neighbor did, I think maybe? I am not even sure I trust my memory about that), so I didn’t have the same visceral reaction that you did. (I am very, very sorry about your friends who died, what an awful thing.) I hooked in right away to the sister relationship between June and Greta. And, I don’t know. June and Greta were awful, but in the way teenagers are awful, so it maybe bothered me less than it did you. I like how unsentimental the author is about children. They’re legit horrible! They are selfish jerks! Which is kinda true of real kids.

    • May 19, 2018 3:57 pm

      Yes, I love reading your reviews because even though we come at books from totally different angles a lot of the time, I think we have many of the same attitudes, so I think that the places we differ offer a bit of insight into generational changes in attitudes.
      As you know, I have no experience with sisters, so am usually less charmed by sister relationships than you are.
      The author is definitely unsentimental about children, and I did like that; it’s part of what kept me reading.

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