Set in New York during the AIDS crisis, Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a stunning and raw story of loneliness, longing, and the multifaceted healing power of love.
When teenage June Elbus’ beloved uncle, Finn, dies of a mysterious illness, June must sift through her heartbreak and confusion. The hole Finn once filled in June’s life is now filled with excruciating questions: Who was June’s uncle, really? Why was he the only one who made her feel like she could be her truest self? Why, if June shared herself so wholly with Finn, did he keep so much of his life secret from her? Why did he stop painting at the height of his career? Why has June’s relationship with her sister been so strangled since Finn died? Will they ever repair their once iron bonds? How can June live with herself knowing that she was and is still in love with her deceased gay uncle? Can the person who Finn kept hidden in the shadows be the one to help her find the answers she is desperately looking for?
June navigates her sea of emotions with the delicate sincerity that is exemplary of a moving coming-of-age story. In her quest for answers, June uncovers her definition of love and friendship, all while learning to slowly accept and love herself.
5 stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“I know all about love that’s too big to stay in a tiny bucket. Splashing out all over the place in the most embarrassing way possible,” says our fourteen-year-old narrator-protagonist, June Elbus. The emotionally moving narrative follows June as she navigates loss, complex family dynamics, and the development of a forbidden friendship, all in the name of her “embarrassing” love for her deceased gay uncle, Finn Weiss. Published in 2012 and set during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a profound but unpretentious novel about the multifaceted human experience of yearning.
Yearning is woven into many aspects of June’s journey. From her wish that she had been born in medieval times to her desire to restore a close bond with her sister, June lives in a constant state of longing that makes its way from the page to settle deeply into the reader’s chest. Most notable on June’s list of latent realities is her desire for a romantic relationship with Finn.
June’s coming of age is steered heavily by her inappropriate feelings for Finn, who dies of what she thinks is a mysterious illness. While her feelings for Finn are not sexual, June still struggles with her inner conflict of knowing her feelings are “wrong” and yet not knowing how to turn them off. Brunt does a flawless job of depicting the almost unbearable weight of June’s shame, evoking all the complex uncertainty of teenagehood in simple, elegant language.
June’s struggle is particularly poignant when set alongside her developing friendship with her uncle’s former secret lover, Toby. As her friendship with Toby develops. June is crushed by how little she knows about the gay aspect of Finn’s life, which serves as a poignant parallel between June’s shame for her “wrong” feelings and Finn’s having to hide his gayness from the world. With this parallel, Brunt brilliantly encapsulates the unwieldy awkwardness of what it is like to discover and eventually accept oneself.
As a queer person who often felt awkward and ashamed throughout most of her youth, this book really resonated with me. I found this book healing because I connected so deeply to the humanity of constantly asking oneself, “Am I normal, or am I a freak?” — a question that many young people regardless of sexuality often ask as they begin to understand their unique reaction to the world around them. Brunt manages to dance on that nuanced and precarious line between the murky societal definitions of “right” and “wrong,” begging the question, “Should we ever really be ashamed of our feelings?”
Coming of Age