Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Carol Rifka Brunt
360 pages (hardcover)
Most people go through an awkward phase at some point. Those terrible early-teen years, when you’re not quite a kid and not quite an adult, are prime awkward-phase years. Your body is changing, your hormones are raging, and you’re trying to figure out who the hell you are.
Maybe you went through an embarrassing Goth phase (like these guys) and decided to dye your hair black and wear black lipstick and black clothes. Maybe you went through a hippie phase and wore Baja pullovers (you know the kind) and tried to get your hair to dread and smoked American Spirits.
Or maybe your awkward phase was like mine. My awkward phase included oversized glasses, bad perms, a wicked overbite (followed by years of braces), and horrible fashion. And it looked something like this . . .
Yes, my awkward phase was serious (and, for the record, I used to think that outfit, suede skirt and all, was everything). Soon after that picture was taken, I dyed strips of my hair bright red using Kool-Aid, became a vegetarian, and started listening to a lot of Nirvana. I took my awkward phase(s) seriously.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is about a girl, June, in the prime of her own awkward phase. She is thirteen years old, artsy, weird, obsessed with the Medieval Era, and introverted. One of her favorite things to do is watch people:
Watching people is a good hobby, but you have to be careful about it. You can’t let people catch you staring at them. If people catch you, they treat you like a first-class criminal. And maybe they’re right to do that. Maybe it should be a crime to try to see things about people they don’t want you to see.
Another of her favorite things to do is to put on one of her sister’s old Gunne Sax dresses (one that’s too small and won’t button) over her clothes, go out into the middle of the woods (the snowier, the better), and pretend that she is a peasant girl from centuries past (“Usually I put myself in the Middle Ages. Usually England.”).
But the thing she likes best of all is to spend time with her best and only friend, her uncle, Finn, who is the one person in the world who treats her like she’s special and who understands her.
Uncle Finn is a famous artist. Medieval art is his favorite, and he shares this passion with June. He takes June to the Cloisters, to see Amadeus, and to watch choirs sing the Requiem. He calls her Crocodile and buys her special gifts, like her medieval boots (“black suede with crisscross leather laces right up the front,” which he got for her at the medieval festival at the Cloisters, to which they’ve gone three years in a row).
But Uncle Finn is very sick. Before he dies, he wants to do one last thing: paint a portrait of June and her sister, Greta. It is an excuse to see them and spend time with them before he dies, a way to give them a lasting gift, and a silent plea to bring them back together.
June has a tenuous relationship with Greta. They used to be inseparable and the best of friends. June doesn’t understand why their relationship devolved so much and so quickly. Greta is just a couple years older. She is beautiful, smaller, and talented (“Later, at home, I told my mother [Finn] looked like a deflated balloon. Greta said he looked like a small gray moth wrapped in a gray spider’s web. That’s because everything about Greta is more beautiful, even the way she says things.”). But Greta is also mean—frighteningly, stingingly, awfully mean, in the way only a sibling can be. And their relationship is scourged by jealousy.
When Uncle Finn dies, Greta suddenly invites June to a party. June is flummoxed by Greta’s niceness and assumes it’s some sort of trick. But it’s not. Greta tells her that, now that Finn is gone, they can go back to being the way they used to be (“I’ll help you forget all about Uncle Finn.”). But when June tells Greta she doesn’t want to forget all about Finn, their relationship continues to grow more difficult.
At Finn’s funeral, lurking outside, is a man June has never seen before. Greta tells June that he is a murderer; he is the man who gave Finn AIDS. Her parents speak about him harshly and tell the girls to make sure he doesn’t come in the church.
June is surprised to receive a package from this man a few days later, containing one of Finn’s prized possessions and an invitation to meet. In secret, June begins to meet up with this man, whom she initially despises (he killed her beloved Finn, after all). But she also realizes that he is the one person who understands her grief and can help her not only remember all of the wonderful things about Finn but also learn new things about the person she loved most in the whole world.
Rating: 4/5 🐺
The first chapter of this book is about a visit by June, Greta, and their mother to Finn’s apartment, so the girls can sit for their portrait (you can read the whole first chapter here). Finn is already very sick and frail. June is devastated, and Greta is doing her best to make things even harder for all of them. I could tell immediately that I was going to need to have the tissues handy for this book.
And I was right. This book is a tear jerker. But it’s a tear jerker in the vein of The Fault in Our Stars. It is tragic, yes, but the sadness is tinged with redemption and love. It is about the complexities of familial relationships.
The style is interesting: June is a barely-teenage protagonist and first-person narrator, but this book was not written for a teenage audience (it did, however, win YALSA’s Alex Award, which is given annually to books written for adults that have a special appeal to YA readers). The voice is authentically and purposefully young. June is both naïve and emotionally immature. This is an effective device that allows the adult reader to understand situations (arguments with her sister, parental worries, emotional conflicts, etc.) better than June understands them herself as she is relaying them. It would be easy for the author, therefore, to fall into the trap of making June look stupid or simple, but she doesn’t. And this is one of the book’s great successes. You, as the reader, are able to pull for June and watch as she develops and matures.
Who should read it: Danielle, Bonnie, and all you other fans of The Fault in Our Stars (i.e., people who don’t mind a teenage narrator or a good tear jerker).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for April 2013; winner of the Costa Novel Award and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction).
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (the first book in the MaddAdam Trilogy; shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction).