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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: 'Tell the Wolves I'm Home'

By Carol Rifka Brunt
Literary Fiction
June 2013 (paperback edition)
Dial Press
ISBN: 978-0812982855

Before that time in life when one comes, inevitably, to age, to adulthood, there is in the best of possibilities a time when the person coming of age recognizes a rite of passage happening. In the mid-80s, June Elbus receives the gift of such a time during her fourteenth year. It's the year after her beloved uncle dies of AIDS when people could only whisper its name, and when she and her older sister realize how far apart they have grown, in Carol Rifka Brunt's debut novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

June's Uncle Finn knows he is dying, and his way of saying goodbye is to have June and her sister, Greta, pose while he paints their portrait. Finn is a good artist, and a famous one, although that's not why June loves him. He is her godfather, and he pays attention to her. They have special places, such as the Cloisters. Finn shows her how the little things matter when it comes to illuminating the whole. And that's the kind of story that June tells.

At Finn's funeral, a young man is turned away. But he and June make eye contact. Then June receives a phone call from him, and packets in the mail. The young man is Toby, Finn's lover, who was never allowed by Finn's sister to know Finn's nieces. But Finn has asked Toby and June to look out for each other.

They both need looking after, because they are sweet souls who seek the beauty in life. Toby has a horrible secret in his past that complicates a plan that June concocts, as only a child can concoct a plan, to make things better. And Toby, like Finn, is dying of AIDS.

Early in their clandestine friendship, June tells Toby why she likes to pretend she lives in medieval times:

Maybe it's just that people didn't know everything then. There were things people had never seen before. Places nobody had ever been. You could make up a story and people would believe it. You could believe in dragons and saints. You could look around at plants and think that maybe they could save your life.

June is at the end of that time when she can believe in dragons and saints. June also is grappling with her older sister. Greta is the prototypical cooler-than-thou teenager. She's the youngest in her crowd, performing as Bloody Mary in the school production of South Pacific, and she is very, very talented. June knows her so well that she can tell when Greta is naturally brilliant and phoning it in, although no one else seems to notice.

Although the relationship between June and Finn, and later June and Toby, is magical, the relationship between June and Greta is realistic. It is part of the foundation that holds this novel together and the ties between June and Greta are part of what makes this novel so steadfast. Greta is disdainful. She pushes June away. June tries to ignore her. Why the once-close sisters are now longer each other's best friend is shown in heart-wrenching detail. Also shown is that there is every reason to believe that they can mend their relationship, especially with the example of Finn and their mother before them. They once were as close as June and Greta were, but Mom gave up her art and became, with their father, an accountant. They're taking care of their family. Thinking about art and the talent she once displayed makes their mother sad and angry.

The title of the novel comes from what appears in the family portrait. In the space between the sisters, June makes out the shape of a wolf. In the woods beyond her home, where she goes to be alone, she hears canine howls that may be wolves. June, in her lowest moment, decides that you can't get away from those things that are out to get you. "You may as well tell them where you live, because they'll find you anyway. They always do."

The novel takes a turn that celebrates love among family members. Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a quirky, fun story that even when it hits the low points in people's relationships, treats its characters lovingly. It's the kind of novel in which a fourteen-year-old girl and her beloved uncle's lover have this kind of conversation:

 "Don't you know? That's the secret. If you always make sure you're exactly the person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you don't care if you die tomorrow."  
 "That doesn't make any sense. If you were so happy, then you'd want to stay alive, wouldn't you? You'd want to be alive forever, so you could keep being happy." I reached over and tapped my ash into a pretty pottery dish that Toby was using for an ashtray. 
 "No, no. It's the most unhappy people who want to stay alive, because they think they haven't done everything they want to do. They think they haven't had enough time. They feel like they've been short-changed."

By the end of the novel, it's not only all right to tell the wolves that June is home, I left these characters knowing that they all were going to do everything they want to do. They won't be short-changed.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. This was one of my favourite reads last year so it is great to see you enjoyed it. I ended the novel feeling as though I knew the characters and agree with you about their future. :-) I can't wait to see what she writes next!

  2. I read this one recently and enjoyed it, I think because I found June such an engaging narrator. I agree that some parts were fairly repetitive and other parts were explored without being fully explained, but for a debut I thought the language was just lovely.

    Marlene Detierro (Renton's River Adventures, Inc.)