The Greek language contains multiple words for love. Agape means spiritual love. Eros means physical love. Philia means friendship. Storge means familial love. In English, a single word — love — umbrellas all these emotional varietals. Without so many fine distinctions, is it surprising that 14-year old June Elbus’s first feelings of love leave her mixed up?
In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, debut novelist Carol Rifka Brunt poignantly portrays an adolescent girl’s struggle to comprehend love in a time and culture under strain as it comes to term with a complicated disease.
Set in Manhattan and Westchester, New York in 1987, the book opens with the death of June’s beloved uncle Finn, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Finn was not just June’s uncle, however; he was her godfather, her inspiration, 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 his death, she begins to realise 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 honour Finn’s wishes, they find themselves connecting through shared bonds of loss, love and jealousy. June is shattered to realise 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 ostracised and banned from the funeral. June worries about catching AIDS from a kiss under the mistletoe; Greta 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.
Brunt strikes a difficult balance, imbuing June with the disarming candor of a child and the melancholy wisdom of a heart-scarred adult. Here, for instance, June reflects on the diminishing returns of getting older: “It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. . . . Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck.“
Though Brunt’s approach to AIDS and homosexuality is bold, her novel is mostly an extended meditation on all the meanness that could come out of loving someone too much. The plot is never dull, and the convincing emotional climaxes, while overwrought, are appropriate for a narrator of June’s age. Though the book has young adult–novel qualities, with moral conflicts that resolve themselves too easily and characters nursing hearts of gold, there’s enough ambiguity and subtlety to interest a wider audience.