I had my eyes on Tell the Wolves I’m Home for a while, and when Amazon offered it as a Kindle daily deal, I made sure to snatch it up. I was intrigued by the plot, and I am always drawn to books with a lot of heart and quirky child/teenage characters. The story of June Elbus and her relationship with her uncle Finn is definitely one filled with painful moments. The book takes place in 1987, and June’s uncle Finn has just lost his battle with AIDS. Soon after his death, June develops a friendship with Finn’s partner, Toby, a man whom her mother and older sister blame for Finn’s death, and that friendship is the catalyst for this coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a heartbreaking disease that people in the late 80s didn’t really understand.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a difficult book for me to review. There were many aspects of the book that I really loved, and then there were some that I really didn’t. Let me start with the parts I loved.
Carol Rifka Brunt has a very pleasant style of writing. She was able to beautifully capture the conflicting emotions of a 14-year-old-girl while also enabling readers to understand the reality of what life with AIDS was like during the 80s. I truly felt that the heart of this book was in its handling of Finn’s and Toby’s AIDS and the way people treated them as a result, as well as how people treated June once they found out her uncle had died from the disease. She says, “They had no idea how I felt about Finn. No idea that hearing them talk about AIDS, like that was the important part of the story—more important than who Finn was, or how much I loved him, or how much he was still breaking my heart every single hour of every single day—made me want to scream.” This element of Tell the Wolves I’m Home is what drew me in to the book, and the way that Brunt showed how the family members of those with AIDS dealt with a wide range of emotions and effects of losing a loved one was beautiful. I also thought she did an excellent job describing the pain that June felt throughout the book, regardless of the reasons. For example, when talking about her relationship with her older sister, Greta, June says, “Sometimes what Greta said was so sharp I could actually feel her words cutting up my insides, slicing their way through my stomach and my heart.” In fact, many of June’s descriptions of painful emotions involve words related to physical pain, such as “Everything she said was vague, like the details might stab her if they got too sharp.“
Ultimately, the message behind this book and the way it opened my eyes to the overall public response to those with AIDS in the 80s outweighed my big complaint about Tell the Wolves I’m Home, but man…that complaint is kind of major.
I kind of hated most of the characters.
There. I said it. Please don’t hate me, if you are one of the many people who absolutely love this book. But I can’t help it.
I fell in love with Toby and thought June’s dad had a pretty good head on his shoulders.
I REALLY couldn’t stand Greta, I wanted to punch June’s mom in the face, and June herself is one of the most selfish characters I have ever read. June’s jealousy of Toby for knowing things about Finn that she didn’t know and for spending time with Finn that she didn’t get to spend with him hung over the entire book like a giant, black cloud. The fact that she placed every ounce of her worth and her uncle’s love for her in the idea that she should have known every tiny detail of his life was ridiculous and kept her from feeling any bit of empathy toward all the other people (especially Toby) who had loved Finn as well. At one point she says, “A list of questions I wanted to ask Toby started piling up in my head, but when I looked over at him, ready to ask, it struck me how stupid I would sound. I should already know the answers. If I mattered at all, somebody would have told me those things.” I get it. She is a 14-year-old girl, and 14-year-old girls tend to think only of themselves, but almost every thought June has throughout the book is along the lines of “Woe is me. I’m not important to anyone, or else I would know everything about everyone in the world, especially Finn.” Greta is even worse. She is a senior in high school, and even though she is younger than her classmates because she skipped a grade, her maturity level is closer to a middle school student than a 16-year-old. Her emotional instability obviously has very deep (and worrisome) roots, but no one seems to recognize her cries for help, and Brunt’s handling of Greta’s emotional condition left a lot to be desired.
Don’t even get me started on their mother. Without revealing any spoilers, I will say that the “conditions” she gave Finn and her treatment of him when he returned from Europe helped me understand where her daughters learned their selfishness.
With all of that being said, I really did enjoy reading this book more than I must have just made it seem with my criticism of the female characters in the book. It was well-written and had some truly beautiful and emotional elements, but I had a very hard time connecting with June, especially, because she behaved so selfishly. There is one particular decision she makes toward the very end that sealed the deal for me with her, and there wasn’t much she could do from that point on to redeem herself, in my eyes. She had a chance, and she didn’t take it, and I just couldn’t imagine anyone in her shoes actually making the same decision she made. If you have read the book, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. If you read the book after reading this review, you will know it when you get there. I promise. In order for a book to be a home-run for me, I have to be genuinely invested in the characters, and that includes their flaws. For me, June’s flaws overshadowed everything else about her, and I simply couldn’t see past them in order to connect with her on an emotional level. This is still a good book, and I really did enjoy reading it, but I just didn’t love it…because I kind of hated June. Other readers absolutely adore June, but I’m just not one of them.