Tell The Wolves I’m Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt
2012 • 360 pages • The Dial Press
No matter how much young adult fiction I read, it’s difficult squaring the fully realized humans that populate the vast majority of them with my own experience of adolescence—foggy, confused, and only on the road to being a person. (Tips for teens: everybody is worried about themselves. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Also, queer girls, don’t let straight girls give you makeovers. Their motives are rarely pure.) I understand why, of course. Not every author or every story needs to dig deep into the strange dreamscape that is the adolescent psyche. And every adolescent is different. But it’s important to write stories about the painful, harrowing process of becoming a person, lest kids (like yours truly) grow up ashamed of the half-formed nature that is, by rights, theirs.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home tells the story of one such teenager—June, a fourteen year old in the eighties, mourning the loss of her beloved uncle Finn. Her parents attempt to put on a brave front and refuse to discuss the disease Finn died from, while her elder sister Greta views June’s excessive mourning with cruel contempt. Only Finn’s final painting, a portrait of his nieces entitled “Tell The Wolves I’m Home”, marks his time in their lives. Adrift without Finn and vague at school, June suddenly finds a new avenue back to Finn when Finn’s boyfriend, Toby, asks to speak to her. The two begin meeting clandestinely, bonding over their love of Finn even as June has to keep him secret.
That June was in love with her uncle is not a secret Brunt keeps from the reader. It is not ever, mercifully, reciprocated, and whenever June can face this truth, she beats herself up about it. June’s dim view of sex in romance elevates this from something tawdry to something very pure. At one point, ever the medievalist, she imagines herself and Finn as monks forbidden from speech, simply sharing knowing glances. Finn was her favorite person in the world, and she often wonders if she’s exploiting Toby by drawing out all of his stories about Finn to add to her meager store. In this secret, which dominates the novel, Brunt has hit on something universal that I rarely see in novels: the truth that only you think is dark. She perfectly captures the acid taste of something you can barely admit to yourself, as well as the cottony weight of it once you’ve accepted it, spoken it aloud, and robbed of its ability to strangle you. That is not June’s entire journey towards self-actualization, but it is the beginning of it.
June is not a precocious, bright teenager. She’s slow and steady, half-heartedly ashamed of her size, constantly running off to the words to pretend that she lives in the Middle Ages. Her only goal in life is to become a falconer at a renaissance fair. People assume she’s quicker on the uptake than she actually is. “ I nodded like I’d known for years. Like it wasn’t just another thing nobody had bothered to fill me in on,” she gripes at one point (205). Brunt imbues June with a razor sharp take on the peculiar logic of adolescents and any other kind of person that lives almost entirely in their heads. On reentering Finn’s apartment after his death, June is overwhelmed by the idea that there’s some trace of the air Finn used to breathe in his apartment; later, after finally gaining entry into Finn’s bedroom while helping Toby clean their apartment, she burrows into the sheets, wondering if this is where Finn contracted AIDS. Her half-magical thinking and attempts to piece out the world around her with limited context is, to me, exactly adolescence: trying to fathom both yourself and the world around you without internal resources others assume you have.
Watching June slowly warm to Toby, to the point of finally standing up to her parents, who refuse to speak about him, is a slow, wonderful thaw, but her relationship with her sister is the sharper one. Greta, jealous of June and Finn’s relationship, hopes that they’ll be close again after Finn’s death, but they’ve grown apart. Greta’s quick wit and sharp tongue find an easy mark in June; June does her best to try and reconnect, but she’s missing something important—that she can be important to other people. There’s intrigue in Tell The Wolves I’m Home, but, ultimately, it’s about June finally finding her feet via the brave act (among many brave acts she executes in the last third of the novel) of being honest about herself to herself.
I rented this book from the public library.