Happy Monday, Bookworms!
I don’t use the term “favorite” often when it comes to books, because it’s too difficult. All sorts of books have all sorts of great reasons to love them. However, Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt tugged at all the right heartstrings for me. Dare I say that this may just land on my list of FAVORITES? Oh, I dare. And now I’m going to gush all over the internet. Ready?
It’s 1987. June and her sister Greta are posing while their Uncle Finn paints their portrait. The girls spend every Sunday at their uncle’s apartment in the city while he paints. (Oh I should clarify. “The City” in this instance means NYC. “The City” if I use it generally means Chicago. People who grow up in the suburbs of major cities tend to refer to the major cities simply as “The City.” I confused the bejeesus out of one of my book club pals by not clarifying my usage once. It was pretty funny.)
Sadly, these portrait sessions are some of the last hours the girls will spend with their uncle, because he is dying of AIDS. Like I told you earlier. It’s 1987. The AIDS crisis is blowing up. There is no treatment- AZT isn’t even available yet. At this point in time, AIDS is a death sentence, and a quick one to boot. June is exceptionally close with Finn. She spends more time with him than Greta does- they have pretty much the coolest uncle-niece relationship ever. Greta has no trouble making friends whereas June’s favorite activity is to wander in the woods pretending she’s in the Middle Ages. (Right there, June had my heart. We had a little wooded area near our house when I was growing up. Wandering around while pretending to be in another time? Been there.) Finn took June under his wing and gave her an outlet for all her eccentricities, and some sweet boots.
With no antiviral medications, AZT, or drug cocktails, Finn isn’t long for this world. At his funeral, June notices a man lingering outside the funeral home. Greta tells her that the man is responsible for Finn’s death. That he maliciously gave Finn AIDS. A few days later, June receives a mysterious package with a note from a man named Toby. The package contains her Uncle Finn’s beautiful Russian teapot. The note from Toby begs June to meet him.
June soon realizes that she’s not the only person torn to pieces by Finn’s death. Her friendship with Toby introduces her to facets of Finn she never knew- a whole segment of his life that was kept from her at her mother’s behest. The sibling relationships in this book are painful, but so REAL. Greta and June have this antagonistic love-hate thing going on that really resonated with me. Plus, we eventually learn some of the history behind Finn’s relationship with his sister. Even it was a dick move to refuse to allow her children to have any interaction with Finn’s life partner, I still sympathized with June & Greta’s mom. That’s good writing. Flawed characters acting like REAL people are some of my absolute favorites. Seems to me that most of the time people are just trying to do the best they can, it’s just that pesky humanity business goes and gets in the way.
The thing that struck me most about this book was the historical context. By the time I was old enough to have any real understanding of HIV/AIDS, people were pretty well aware of how the disease was spread. There is a scene in the novel where Greta’s mother catches her using Finn’s lip balm and has a bit of a meltdown. At one point June is ashamed to be fearful of getting a kiss from her uncle. Heck, even in the late 90s some of that paranoia remained. When I was in high school, I recall my health teacher saying that he might shake the hand of a person known to be infected with HIV… But he’d immediately wash his hands very, very well. Ten years AFTER this book took place, there were people who refused to listen to the scientific evidence… And they were allowed to pass that attitude on to young teens.
This book isn’t about science or virology. It’s about love, loss, and forgiveness. It’s a coming of age tale where June learns that things aren’t always what they seem. My words feel clumsy and I’m not doing this book any justice. Just trust me and read it, okay?! You won’t be sorry.
Alright Bookworms. I need to know. Anybody out there have an awesome relationship with an extended family member? I want to hear about it! Let’s share the love for our eccentric aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, shall we? (I hope someday my Squishy has such stories to tell about me!)