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The many books which I find to read often change me. The few books which find me to read them change the me who I am.Tell the Wolves I'm Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt, is such a book.
Detailed summaries are everywhere, so I'll only touch on the plot: in the late 80's, the main character is fifteen, and her favorite uncle--a gay man semi-closeted by the kind of silent family agreement that with time becomes a silent family dispute--dies of AIDS. The grief in this book is large, and real, with the quality of startling mundanity that real grief has.
The other characters in the book feeling the fact of the uncle's absence from their lives is what creates the character of the uncle, or more accurately the character of the uncle's absence, for the reader. The book's prose and the characters' emotions are the tools that Brunt gives the reader to feel around for the edges of the hole, the space--once filled, and now empty--in the structure of the story. One miracle of this book is that this whole writing structure is totally unforced, almost invisible, effortless and agentless as heartbreak. A second miracle in prose: this theme of negative space is explored literally in the book by the device of a painting, and that doesn't feel forced either: having the metaphor made concrete in the book seems the most natural of devices, evolving solely from the characters' interests, memories, and conversations.
This theme of negative space is, of course, a metaphor for the secret surrounding AIDS and the family's individual secrets surrounding the larger, half-spoken truth of the uncle's life with his longtime partner before his death. Wolves
doesn't shy away from using that metaphor with precision and great sensitivity--and even better, eventually drops all metaphor when confronted with such human, impossible, life-changing, grief as AIDS. The grief in this book is gloriously, purposefully, deliberately angry, made political by personal necessity, and so, so valuable for that: the fact that it evokes the political and moral climate surrounding American queer people in the late 80's and early 90's, and the way that it does so, made me remember watching Philadelphia
as a closeted 14 year old and realizing at the time that it was considered an act of award-winning cultural daring for famous people with thousands of dollars and corporate backing to act out love in the way I actually loved, or to act out dying in the way I understood that people like me were probably going to die.
I can't imagine what it would have been like to read this book as a straight person, or even as a younger LGBTQ person (as fascinated as I would be by hearing those perspectives), because the angry grief this book contains made me more happy to be myself and be no one else. Even though I was personally done feeling apologetic, guilty, homophobic, or self-hating about coming out and being out as a queer person, I didn't even know that I still felt apologetic, guilty, homophobic, and self-hating over having closeted myself in the first place. Wolves
' finely detailed examination of personal, historical, and cultural grief surrounding the AIDS epidemic allowed me to see myself, my choices, and my unhappiness with those choices in context. I'm able, finally, to show compassion to the closeted queer girl I was half a lifetime ago, am amazed that I have such a capacity for compassion and love, and feel thrilled that it's necessary to continue to show myself such compassion.Wolves
, being built around death and secrets, may seem depressing. But this novel is a truly amazing coming to terms with the necessity of life's eventual end and the loss of loved ones, via the recognition that there is so much joy, color, love, art, capacity for self-exploration, and forgiveness bursting out of a merely fictional loss that it gives one immense amounts of hope for the nonfiction of life.
Please, please read this book; I'd love to discuss it with you, my friends.