Book Review – Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

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I’m rather inclined to think of Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Dial Press, 2013) as a young adult novel. That’s certainly not a bad thing, I just think teenagers would benefit from reading this one.

June is 14-years-old and her favourite person in the world has just died. Her uncle Finn, a talented artist, her best friend, the only person who she thinks will ever understand her. Before he died, Finn painted one last work of art – a portrait of June and her sister Greta. This painting comes to mean a lot to the characters – a final message from Finn, a way to be part of his legacy, a means of communication as relationships fall apart.

To complicate matters, Finn’s death was caused by AIDS and the year is 1987. While most of the novel could take place in current time, I think Brunt was wise to place it in 1987 when it comes to the issue of AIDS. While AIDS still carries huge stigmas, peoples’ understanding of the disease has grown. I can remember, as a kid, how controversial it was when Princess Diana visited with AIDS patients. Tell the Wolves I’m Home takes place several years before that even, in New York City and its surrounding suburbs and the misinformation and fear is strong. Towards the beginning of the novel there is a telling scene where June, who adores Finn, is fearful when he kisses the top of her head. Can you catch AIDS through your hair? she wonders.

With Finn gone and feeling farther from her once-close sister than ever, June is adrift, anxious to grow up, and spending much of her free time in a fantasy land of the past. She hangs out in the woods, pretending to be a girl in the Middle Age. It’s weird and it’s endearing and it perfectly captures that awkward age between childhood and adulthood.

Then June is contacted by a stranger who knew Finn and begins to discover that there was a lot more to her uncle than she ever knew.

Brunt does a tremendous job creating characters. They are nuanced and, mostly, realistic. She gives them depth without giving us all the answers. Greta is a great example of this – we learn of some of the struggles that June’s older sister faces but, since the story, isn’t about her, there’s a lot left unanswered. This rang true to me; in real life we don’t know every detail about someone else’s life – even our own sisters. Greta has her own struggles off-screen, just as June’s mother has her own history with Finn. Sometimes these side stories colour June’s story but much of it is left untold. Because Brunt has created such well-rounded characters, I was okay with that.

I did have to suspend a fair amount of disbelief when it came to June’s interactions with this friend of her uncle’s, a man named Toby. June is fourteen and Toby is described as around thirty. While I bought that June might chase after this relationship as a connection to Finn, I question the judgement of a grown man who hangs out with a teenage girl behind her parents’ back. Toby is a likeable figure but why doesn’t he do things out in the open? As an adult, he’s the one who should know that this will blow up in his face? Why isn’t he as eager for a connection to Finn’s sister as to Finn’s niece?

Overall though, I was captivated. This fictional world is well-developed, fascinating, and fun to read about. I recommend getting to know June Elbus.

A note about the title: This is a fancy title that ends up not meaning anything and so I’m labelling it pretentious. It didn’t have to be – I kept waiting for some kind of excellent explanation from the author. I gave her the benefit of the doubt right up until the end because she wrote a good book. Without any sort of greater meaning added to it, this title seems like something that sounded cool to the author and got forced into her book.

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