It is possible that, at the 2016 Writer Unboxed UnConference, every presenter quoted or referred to Carol Rifka Brunt’s novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home, so it was a natural for the WU Breakout Novel Dissectors (BND) group to tackle–one year later, we finally have.
Standard Disclaimers and Explanations: There will be spoilers ahead (even in the next paragraph!), so if that bothers you, please read the book right now and then come back. WU BND is an online book club for writers; four times a year we choose a breakout novel to take apart using questions derived from Donald Maass’s craft books, and then come back here to talk about what we learned.
Brunt’s book taught us about the effectiveness of a number of Maass techniques:
- specific and vivid sense of time and place
- conflict on every page
- multi-layered symbols
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the story of fourteen-year-old June and her family during a few months in 1986. Her mother and father are accountants entering the hectic pre-tax-return time of year, rendering June and her sister temporary “tax orphans.” Older sister Greta and June used to be close, but aren’t any longer. Uncle Finn (the mother’s brother) and June are very close, but he is dying of AIDS; he dies fairly soon into the book. Toby is Uncle Finn’s boyfriend of nine years; June does not know he exists until Finn’s funeral.
The story is tightly focused on this handful of characters and their layers of grief–over fractured relationships, over dreams given up, over being misunderstood, over the final separation of death. These people all love each other (well, not Toby), but for most of the book, that love serves to make the rifts more painful.
Brunt opens the novel with a scene that shows all three of the techniques we thought she excelled at. Greta and June are visiting Uncle Finn so he can paint their portrait before he dies. Greta holds mistletoe above Finn and June’s heads so they’ll have to kiss. This is 1986, when people knew AIDS was transmitted by bodily fluids, but weren’t sure what level of contact was required. June feels like Finn is the only one who truly sees her and gets her, yet she is terrified to have him kiss her because he has horribly chapped lips that sometimes bleed and she doesn’t want to get AIDS. June doesn’t want to act repulsed or afraid because Greta would be pleased by that and because she doesn’t want to hurt her uncle, yet there’s a risk of death. Finn reads the fear in her, so he kisses her on the top of her head. Which is not a relief to June: she’s worried enough to wash her hair three times that night. Yet she still cherished that gentle kiss.
With this one scene, we get a solid sense of this era, we experience June’s tension, we see how deteriorated the relationship between the sisters is, and we’re introduced to the portrait, which will be a recurring symbol. That’s a lot of work for one little scene. [Read more…]