Book Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Tell The Wolves I’m Home, a first novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, defeated my best efforts to remain stoically dry-eyed while reading. What I expected to be a not-so-extraordinary family drama surprised me with its honest, emotional look at love and loss… and yes, there were tears.
Set in Manhattan and Westchester, New York in the mid-1980s, Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a look at one eventful spring in the life of 14-year-old June Elbus. As the book opens, June’s beloved uncle Finn has just died, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Finn was not just June’s uncle, however; he was her godfather, her inspiration, and her first true love. Finn, a gifted artist, introduced June to everything she considers beautiful in her life — Mozart’s Requiem, visits to the Cloisters, an appreciation for the fine details all around her. June believes that the bonds between her and Finn are all-encompassing, but in the weeks following Finn’s death, June begins to realize that Finn had an entire life that she knew nothing about, and is forced to reexamine her relationship with Finn and its central role in her life.
As June reels through previously unimagined depths of loss, she is contacted by a stranger, Toby, who reveals himself to have had a key role in Finn’s life. Finn, before his death, left secret messages asking June to take care of Toby and Toby to take care of June, and as they try to honor Finn’s wishes, they find themselves connecting through shared bonds of loss, love and jealousy. June is shattered to realize how much she didn’t know about her uncle, as Toby struggles to let her in and to give dignity to June’s adolescent broken heart. As June mourns Finn and all she thinks she has lost, her older sister Greta acts out in her own brand of grief and loneliness in a desperate attempt to be understood and to reforge a connection before it’s too late.
The author does a wonderful job of capturing a particular time and place: New York, in the first throes of fear and ignorance about AIDS. Glancing references are made to Finn’s “special friend”, whom June’s parents consider a murderer — blaming him for Finn’s illness and death — and who is ostracized and banned from the funeral. June worries about catching AIDS from a kiss under the mistletoe; June’s sister is yelled at by their mother for using Finn’s chapstick. Other small details of life in the 80s bring the time to life: June wears her Gunne Sax dress in a desperate effort to isolate herself from the real world, as she hides out alone in the woods behind the school and pretends to live in the Middle Ages she so adores. Finn gives June cassette tapes of favorite music; June’s parents listen only to Greatest Hits albums (“it was like the thought of getting even one bum track was too much for them to handle”), and June has a fondness for “99 Luftballons” (the German version — much cooler sounding). June wears Bonne Belle lip gloss, and Greta has half of a “best friends” necklace, the other half of which some erstwhile best friend has long since discarded. It’s these small details and more which lend this book such a sense of nostalgic poignancy. At the same time, this coming-of-age story feels like it could be the story of any girl — or rather, every girl — growing up, seeing the human flaws in her parents, realizing that long-held truths may be illusions, finding and losing love, and coming to terms with a picture of one’s inner self which isn’t always so pretty.
Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a quiet, lovely book, a look backward that feels current and relevant, and a sad, sweet story of love and friendship. I’m so glad to have read it, and recommend it highly.