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.
Even a self-obsessed teenager can deliver a vivid setting
Tell the Wolves I’m Home does a masterful job of showing us the 1980s: how heightened the fear was surrounding AIDS, how even a loving family didn’t talk about the homosexuality of one of its members, how schools rarely communicated with parents.
That last one seems minor, but we kept coming back to it in the discussions. At one point, June skips a lot of classes, but the school never calls her parents. Many people didn’t buy that, but I know the truth of it from experience—I was in high school in the early 80s and skipped classes all the time. My parents never knew about it until they got my report card. So even this minor detail is an accurate representation of the era before computerization.
We get a precisely rendered snapshot of this time despite the fact that June never overtly thinks about it. Instead, we get the era and the setting from June’s deep point of view, by seeing how she is personally affected. She doesn’t really think about AIDS; she thinks about her beloved Uncle Finn. She doesn’t go on a diatribe about how the AIDS patients are segregated at the hospital; she breaks Toby out because it makes her sad to see him so alone.
As Elizabeth Harvey said, “I knew the geography of the house, felt like a I knew the neighborhood and the school and the woods and how to get to the train and Finn’s apartment.” But it wasn’t just the facts of where everything was: every location in the book is saturated with June’s emotions.
The woods is where she goes to be herself and live in her imagination until Greta invades it and the aftermath of Finn’s death gives her a quest and forces her to live in the present; then she loses her ability to slip into the past as a comfort. Finn’s apartment is a magical place full of objects she loves until she meets Toby and finds out that many of the things she’d loved were Toby’s, not Finn’s; she’s forced to re-think how well she knew her uncle and to re-think whether Toby was as evil and her mother and Greta told her he was (and why they told her that).
Everyone is constantly unsettled
Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel (book and workbook) has one activity that gives many writers anxiety: picking a page at random and making sure that there is conflict of some kind on that page. And then doing so for every single page.
As Jan O’Hara said in our dissection, Brunt “excelled at keeping conflict alive in the small spaces.”
On page two, while driving to Uncle Finn’s with her mother and sister, June talks about liking to watch people: “Maybe it should be a crime to try to see things about people they don’t want you to see.” Then she does so with Greta, and with her mother’s choice of music, which is wholesome, as if wholesome music could protect them against the unwholesomeness of their uncle with AIDS. It’s just a casual drive, but we see that all isn’t harmonious.
June often remembers how she and Greta used to be close, but that mostly highlights how far they’ve drifted apart, so the memories are never just sweet. Even the utterly ordinary act of waiting for the school bus demonstrates this. We hear about elementary-school Greta putting her arm around June’s shoulders and singing to her, then see high-school June trying to connect with Greta and the older sister moving to the other side of the driveway and turning her back, and then later there’s this:
“She was actually shouting at me. Right out on the street. It felt like a bomb going off, and I stood there frozen. Then, just as fast, Greta turned her back to me and walked to the other side of the maple tree. She leaned up against it so her whole body disappeared. All I could see was one of her feet edging out from the trunk, tapping at the dirt. We waited another five minutes for the bus, and the whole time I watched Greta’s dainty food tapping, like she was sending some kind of Morse code message into the ground.”
Even things that bring them together—June and Greta’s serial “additions” to the portrait—don’t, because they don’t speak of it, not allowing any warming of their relationship to come to the forefront and be an occasion for healing.
Brian King put it memorably during our discussion:
“Pfft! This story has Micro-Tension, Small-Tension, Medium-Tension, and High-Tension. There was always something going on, even the painting was full of tension! The silent dinner was intense…. When I see leaves, I think of bodiless Greta. The frickin lady put tension in leaves. Leaves!!”
Every symbol works on multiple levels
Brunt gives us a number of symbols to follow throughout the novel: the wolves, the painting, the Middle Ages. None of these symbols is static; each of them changes as June changes, and we can see how June changes by her interaction with those symbols. The symbols are often involved in turning point moments, as well.
There are unseen howling animals in the woods, providing a low-level sense of danger when June is in the woods. We hear them a number of times, once prompting June to note that wolves are, “Not bad. Just … just selfish. That’s what they are. Hungry and selfish.” Through its name and a hidden visual reference, this symbol is connected to another symbol, the painting, and because the painting is of them, to the girls. Are the girls the wolves? Do the wolves represent all the people in the novel, hungry and selfish for love, approval, something else? Are they the voice of grief and anger? Do they represent forces in society like wildness as defined against conventionality? We had a good time talking about all the possibilities of the wolves as symbol.
Finn’s portrait of the sisters is the thing that made sure they kept getting together as he was dying, but then it becomes an object of almost too much power, both because it brings up painful emotions, and because its photo is leaked to the press and June and Greta find out that their uncle is a famous artist and this is his first public work in ten years–it isn’t just theirs, it is a financially and artistically important painting. It is also the occasion for June to learn about the rift between her mother and Finn. It becomes a way that she and Greta “communicate,” by adding to the painting. What happens to the painting throughout the novel lets us delve into the many-layered sibling relationships; it reveals Finn the artist and seer; it is a catalyst for rebellion.
June loves the Middle Ages. She imagines she’s in that time period when she’s in the woods, she wants to be a falconer, she and Finn often visit the Cloisters in New York City (a museum specializing in Medieval European art and architecture), and she pesters him to buy her a cool pair of boots at a medieval festival so she can better pretend she lives in that time. After he dies, he leaves her a gift of a journal full of paintings of medieval life–and writes her a message that she struggles to live up to. He leaves her a quest. Which is very medieval. And soon she can no longer slip into the past.
Our Top Takeaways
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is an excellent book to read:
- if you want to learn how to establish setting from within deep point of view, while infusing the settings with emotional heft and import;
- if you want to read an example of conflict/tension on every single page;
- if you want to explore how to layer symbols and how to use them to track character change.
I should note that Brunt did all those things masterfully, plus other breakout novelist techniques, but her ending left many of us concerned for the future of the family, so it was an initially positive ending that wound up being unsatisfying the more we thought about it.
Have you read Tell the Wolves I’m Home? Do you want to say something about the novel that hasn’t been said here? If you’ve read it, put on your editor hat and answer this: What one thing would you have had Brunt change about the book? If you haven’t read it, can you recommend a book that shares the strengths the Breakout Novelist Dissection group identified?
[Edited to add the invitation: If this kind of discussion sounds appealing to you, come join us on Facebook.]