A Review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt
The Dial Press, 2012
by REBECCA, October 8, 2012Happy Monday, all. It is my distinct pleasure to announce that CAROL RIFKA BRUNT, author of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, will be stopping by Crunchings & Munchings on Wednesday to chat with us about her debut novel, grunge music, and (of course) cheese!
June Elbus: at fourteen, June spends most of her time tramping through the woods and imagining she lives in medieval times, except when she visits her uncle Finn in NYC
Finn Weiss: June’s uncle, a renowned painter retired from public life, who is dying of AIDS
Toby: Finn’s partner, who makes contact with June after Finn’s death
Greta Elbus: June’s sixteen-year-old sister who misses the closeness she had with her sister before June began spending so much time with Finn
June’s beloved uncle Finn has just died of AIDS after painting a portrait of June and her sister, Greta. Bereft of the one person she felt understood her, June retreats even deeper into her fantasies that she lives in the Middle Ages. One day, a package arrives at her door—a package from Finn, delivered by the partner that June never knew he had. Toby wants to get to know June, and June finds herself unexpectedly taking comfort from Toby, even as she tries to puzzle out who her uncle really was with each new piece of the puzzle that Toby reveals.
In Tell the Wolves I’m Home we see the world through June’s eyes, and it’s a world both wondrous and confusing. When June is with Finn, it’s a world of Mozart’s Requiem, the Cloisters, Amadeus and A Room With A View, tea from Finn’s Russian teapot, the scents of lavender and orange, and New York, always New York. When she isn’t with Finn, June feels that she doesn’t fit—not in the 20th century, not in school, and especially not with other kids her age who care about things like parties and video games.
After Finn’s death, when June meets his partner, Toby, she’s jealous and confused. Slowly, though, Toby becomes important to June and they begin meeting often, almost as if they could conjure the man they both loved in the space between them:
“I never mentioned a word about Finn, but still, when I looked down, I saw that Toby’s eyes were wet with tears.
‘What is it?’
He wiped his eyes and tried to put on a smile. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, laughing a little big. ‘Everything, I suppose.’
And right then I felt my heart soften to Toby, because I knew exactly what he meant. I understood how just about anything in the world could remind you of Finn. Trains, or New York City, or plants, or books, or soft sweet black-and-white cookies, or some guy in Central Park playing a polka on the harmonica and the violin at the same time. Things you’d never even seen with Finn could remind you of him, because he was the one person you’d want to show. ‘Look at that,’ you’d want to say, because you knew he would find a way to think it was wonderful. To make you feel like the most observant person in the world for spotting it.” (181)
June’s voice is wonderful—she is a bit prickly and standoffish, and definitely awkward with kids her own age, but she is so in tune with Finn that we also see what she’s like at her best. As a former teenager who often didn’t care for other teenagers myself, I totally related to June, and found myself torn between wanting to tell her to just hang on until she’s older because then she’ll have the chance to meet more people like her and Finn, and wanting to just commiserate with her about the true dearth of people as amazing as Finn and Toby that she’ll likely meet.
I don’t mean to by cynical, really. One of Wolves’ real sharp edges is June’s niggling feeling, even at fourteen, that she’s already had two of the most important relationships she will ever have. This undercurrent of what I can only call preemptive mourning was one of the most touching element about the novel for me—the sense you get while something is happening that it will, upon reflection, overshadow most of what is to come.
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
In addition to being a story of June’s first love, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is also about the relationships between siblings—June and her sister Greta as well as their mom and her brother, Finn. It’s about the devastating effects of AIDS, and the importance of art, and the beauty of New York City. Most of all, though, it’s about the power of relationships to change the way we see the world.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is hands down the best book I’ve read in 2012. I started reading it waiting for a BoltBus to come home to Philadelphia from New York late one night this summer. Usually I get carsick trying to read on a bus, but the first few chapters I read while waiting for the bus were so good that I tried anyway. Lo and behold, I was magically un-carsick (much to the chagrin of my seatmate, I think, who clearly wanted the light off and was made uncomfortable by my . . . ahem . . . emotional reaction to the book).
Carol Rifka Brunt’s prose is gorgeous and her characters are incredibly alive. I could tell within the first few chapters, when I started thinking of June and Finn as real people, that Wolves would leave a lasting effect on me. And it really has—this is a beautiful and poignant and difficult book and I loved every page of it.
One of the things I appreciate most about Wolves is that it presents June’s first love—her uncle—with such realistic simultaneous simplicity and confusion. On one hand, June is in love with her absolute favorite person and the fact that he is her uncle is incidental, since it’s not as if they would be together anyway, since he’s gay and so much older than her. On the other hand, though, June knows that it does matter that Finn is her uncle—she feels shame sometimes, and anger when anyone brings it up. Brunt manages to portray June’s feelings with complexity while still capturing the matter-of-factness of feelings that simply are. As a reader, it’s a really beautiful and unique relationship; as someone with an eye toward YA lit in particular, I feel sure that there will be teens for whom Tell the Wolves I’m Home will play an important role in reassuring them that feelings like this are normal.
All in all, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a stunner from beginning to end. Brunt’s story and characters are of the sort that will be looking over my shoulder next time I’m at the Cloisters and who I will think of whenever I hear Mozart’s Requiem. I can’t wait for you all to go read it so we can talk about our favorite parts! In fact, you don’t have to wait long at all: you can read the first ten chapters of Tell the Wolves I’m Home HERE.
As I write this review, I am actually listening to NPR Music’s recording of Tori Amos’ live performance in New York on Friday to celebrate the twenty-year anniversary of the release of Little Earthquakes. Since no one conjures being fourteen for me more than Tori Amos, it feels fitting for this concert to coincide with writing about June and the music that was important to her at that age.
procured from: straight up ran out and bought the hardcover because that’s how sure I was that this book would rock my world. And, as I’ve been telling my little sister since childhood, I’m always right.