Carol Rifka Brunt created a debut novel with a huge emotional wallop. Tell the Wolves I’m Home hits the pain of teen years, family tensions, grief, and a looming virus. It’s set in the 1980s, when AIDS was just coming into the national consciousness.
June, our 14-year old main character is coping with her uncle’s AIDS. Plus, of course, she’s on that typical path of finding her place in the world. Sadly, everything gets rocked when her uncle Finn dies. And one way June navigates her grief is by secretly helping his long-time lover, Toby.
Brunt strikes just the right tone for June’s first-person narrative. She’s a smart, but charmingly quirky kid who wishes she could time travel to the Middle Ages. Finn encouraged her flights of fancy, but now June’s stuck with her more average family. Her sister Greta is a budding stage star. Mom and Dad are overworked tax accountants. No one is as magical as Finn was. So June has to find the magic inside herself.
It’s an odd blessing to read this right now. The COVID-19 pandemic is markedly different from the 1980s years of the AIDS epidemic. Then it was just a few groups of people affected. Now, of course, many more people are at risk. But the way we navigate overwhelming unknowns is parallel. Then, misinformation was rampant. Parents didn’t know if their kids would get AIDS accidentally when they spent time with uncles. Kids didn’t know if they should take a lip treatment tube offered by their uncle. Now, we have fake news accusations and fights about wearing masks.
This is my first 5-star fiction read in 2020. I’ve read lots of 4-star books, and a few 5-star nonfiction reads. But nothing that has touched my heart quite like this one. I can only hope that Brunt is madly at work on her sophomore effort, since this was published in 2012.
Despite the epidemic connection, this book focuses on June’s path out of girlhood into young adulthood. She wants to be an adult, but also to escape into her own inner world. Brunt perfectly balances this conflict, giving June plenty of both moxie and uncertainty.
And the way she compares and contrasts the various family relationships rang true for me. June and Greta have sibling rivalries, but Brunt adds layers of complexity. And the way their relationship parallels Finn’s relationship with his sister, June’s mom, is masterful. Dad is a side note, but a strong one.
More than anything, the way June and Toby connect touched me. They’re so tentative, until they realize no one misses Finn like they do. The love they have for Finn draws them together. And it affects how they feel about each other. It’s a precious thing to see feelings of familial love grow out of darkness.
The only complaint I have is that Brunt’s seriously ill characters weren’t in the hospital nearly enough. I’m also reading the nonfiction history of AIDS, And the Band Played On. Its stark details illustrate the gravity of the disease.
This is an amazing book, filled with love and heart. Considering it’s eight years old, you should be able to find a copy from your library easily. But you might just want to keep a copy on your shelf. It will remind you that family is who we love, not just those with whom we have blood relationships.
Pair with The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, another excellent fictional telling of AIDS in the 1980s. Or go nonfiction like me, and read either And the Band Played On or Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 by M.K. Czerwiec.