The Greek language includes multiple words for love. Agape means spiritual love. Physical desire, eros. Philia means friendship. Storge can be described as familial love.
In English, the single word—love—umbrellas all these emotional varietals, these subspecies. 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, first-time novelist Carol Rifka Brunt movingly portrays an adolescent girl’s struggle to comprehend love in a time and a culture under strain as it comes to terms with a complicated disease.
Fourteen-year-old June Elbus feels closer to her uncle Finn than anyone else on earth. A former best friend, Beans, has moved on. June constantly battles with her older sister, Greta. But Finn understands June. A renowned artist, he teaches her how to sketch, takes her to the Cloisters and introduces her to Mozart’s Requiem.
June’s love for Finn will not die. Finn, on the other hand, will. It’s 1987, and he has AIDS.
In the final months of his life, Finn spends Sunday afternoons painting a portrait of June and Greta. He gives the sisters an excuse to spend time together and with him—even though the girls’ mother, Finn’s sister, disapproves of her brother’s homosexuality. She worries about whether the girls could catch AIDS from something as innocent as using their uncle’s lip balm.
Finn titles the portrait “Tell the Wolves I’m Home,” an allusion to June’s escapes to the woods behind her school where she finds solace among nature and the wolves she believes she hears in the distance. Perhaps the portrait’s name also alludes to the peace Finn finds in art—and the relief from illness that presages death.
After Finn’s death, June sorts out her complicated feelings for her uncle alone, until Finn’s boyfriend Toby delivers a package. June had not met Toby previously. His package includes a note from Finn, a sort of final wish.
It asks June to look after Toby.
Love takes a new form for her now. Also, as she and Toby become acquainted, June learns things she never knew about her beloved uncle. Each story Toby shares offers June greater understanding of the person she loved above all others.
The revelations also leave June reeling. If she didn’t know these things Toby reveals about Finn, how well did she ever really know her beloved uncle?
June and Greta laugh when a local radio station bans George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” because of concern about AIDS, but they feel put on the spot when people in their community ask what it’s like to lose a family member to the disease. All the while, June becomes tangled in a web of other youthful emotions, reeling from her first kiss, from fights with her sister, from feeling misunderstood by her parents.
In the process, a young girl learns that love goes deeper than the stuff in movies and fairytales.
“I thought of all the different kinds of love in the world. I could think of ten without even trying. The way parents love their kid, the way you love a puppy or chocolate ice cream or home or your favorite book or your sister. Or your uncle,” she says. “There’s those kinds of loves and then there’s the other kind. The falling kind. Husband-and-wife love, girlfriend-and-boyfriend love, the way you love an actor in a movie.”
If only such loves had names…
Brunt’s lauded novel, recently released in paperback, offers insight into the complicated web of human emotions. This immensely satisfying tale will remind readers of all ages how much can be gained from understanding another person’s life—and their loves.
Carla Jean Whitley’s work has appeared in BookPage, Publishers Weekly, and Sky magazine. She reads and writes in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is managing editor of Birmingham magazine.