When I was young—maybe nine or ten—there was a house you could see from the freeway that was the weirdest house I had seen up to that point in my life. It had turrets and was painted a mossy shade of green. One day when we drove past it, I decided to use a word I had recently learned; it had given me pause in a book I was reading and I'd had to use some context clues to figure out that it must mean weird.
"Look at that house, Mom!" I said from the back seat. "It's so queer!"
I still remember the look she gave me, and the harsh way she said "You can't use that word, Amy. Don't ever say it again."
I was totally bewildered. Wasn't it just a sophisticated way of saying "strange"? (And yes: I was a strange child!)
But she wouldn't explain why I couldn't say queer. She just said I couldn't.
Maybe that's such a strong memory for me because I can't remember ever being taught that gay people were weird or morally aberrabt or just downright disgusting. I did learn from my dad, one summer vacation, that they were funny, when he told us the story of how, out on his morning walk (in Vegas on the Strip, and if you know my dad you also know he was wearing tall black church socks and church shoes for walking, in probably shorts but also, quite likely, swimming trunks), a gay man had propositioned him.
But I don't remember being taught to hate gay people.
Maybe because I read a lot. Or maybe it was because of the kinds of music I listened to. (There is no shortage of gay men in New Wave.) Maybe because my parents, while not exactly liberal, never taught us any sort of prejudice. Maybe because I had a gay friend in high school and he was so much fun to go to dance clubs with. I'm not exactly sure, but I never had any anti-gay sentiments. I mean, of course I heard the jokes and I knew it bothered a lot of people, but it never was an issue for me.
I thought about that one day when I was in the middle of reading Carol Rifka Brunt's novel Tell the Wolves I'm Home. I was standing in Target, and there was a guy one aisle over whom I could hear talking—I think on his cell phone, but maybe to a non-responsive (embarrassed?) wife. Talking loudly about how much he hated gay people, and how disgusting they are, and how they were ruining the country.
Where does that malevolence come from?
I'm glad we don't see as much I-hate-gay-people crap anymore. Not like in the eighties, when Brunt's novel is set, when AIDS was just starting to explode, forcing people to decide how they felt about homosexuality. It tells the story of June Elbus, who's one of those young teenage girls who just don't know quite how to navigate the world. She wishes she had been born in medieval times, and goes into the woods sometimes just to pretend the modern world doesn't exist. Her sister, Greta, has always been her closest ally, but now she's turned mean, and her one refuge is her days with her uncle Finn. Finn, who's also her godfather, is a famous painter living in New York, and she takes the train there to visit him. He takes her to the Cloisters, to museums, to odd little restaurants. He gives her a pair of brown leather boots that would fit perfect on a medieval girl. He talks to her and teaches her things and she's really partway in love with him.
He's also dying of AIDS.
Before he dies, he paints a portrait of her and Greta, called "Tell the Wolves I'm Home." They start going into the city every Saturday, to sit for the portrait, and then, when it is finished, he dies. I'm not giving anything away, as this happens near the beginning of the story, and there are so many flashbacks you know from almost the start of the novel that the story is about what happen after Finn dies.
What happens is that Toby, Finn's partner, makes contact with June. June didn't ever know that Finn was in a long-term relationship, but she has heard her parents talking about someone who murdered Finn. At first—since the meetings are clandestine—she isn't sure about Toby. But as she gets to know him, she also starts learning more about Finn, about her mother (Finn's sister), about herself.
I loved this book so much.
Partly it's that books with art are always interesting to me. I wish I could make art, and that I knew more about it, but it isn't one of my strengths. So when I find it in a novel (or a poem or anywhere, really) I am intrigued. The painting in the book plays an integral part in how things are (sort of) resolved.
I loved June, too. Love her attachment to the past and how she wants to escape there, because isn’t that part of being a teenager—feeling like this now is too real, too hard, and wanting some sort of escape? She learns so much over the course of the novel: her parents aren’t perfect, her choices don’t always have to make everyone happy, she is stronger and more capable than she ever knew. Even though the setting and the story are completely different from my own, we have so much in common, June and the teenager I used to be. She is constantly feeling like she doesn’t quite fit, and she’s not certain that is always a bad thing. In fact, maybe it’s a good thing. She has that same knowledge, too. “I thought of that kiss. How I’d blushed after, like it meant something. When I thought of all that, it hit me right in the throat. Nothing had changed. I was the stupid one again. I was the girl who never understood who she was to people.”
I so get that.
But I also loved it for the relationship between Greta and June. Greta is so mean to her little sister—just like I was mean to mine. Sometimes I had to put the book down and walk away, I was squirming so with guilt. Just as Greta has her reasons for being so cruel, I can see my motivations and inspirations for being such a bad sister. In fact, that was another thing I loved about Tell the Wolves I’m Home: how it made me remember so clearly how it felt to be 15 in the 80s, when you could tell the world was changing but you didn’t really know how. There are parts of Greta that I related to, and parts of June, and so much of their sisterhood.
This isn’t a book I read quickly. Partly because it isn’t a thriller. It moves slowly, so if you read it for awhile and then put it down, you can come back to it easily. Partly because it made me intensely sad. Because of all the hard stuff that happens to the characters, and the ominous, inescapable death. But also because it creates the time period of my adolescence so vividly. I found myself missing myself—that person I used to be, when I was June’s age, when I was Greta’s. I was braver then, more willing to risk and thus more rewarded. I was so much more true to who I was inside than I am now.
Of course, you can be a teenager forever. Life makes you grow up, and June does that. She figures out how to handle the awkward situation of her intense friendship with a man her mother thinks killed her brother Finn. I think the work of handling that, of figuring out how to be honest and to say what is real, how to be less influenced by other people’s fears and narrow thoughts and more by what she knows, is the crux of the novel.
I have a theory that if AIDS had never happened, our society would still be closeted. It took a horrible disease for us to do what June does, to look at not what everyone else thinks about homosexuality but what we think, as individuals, because it wasn’t a thing anyone could pretend away anymore. There’s a conversation that June has with Toby, about how calm Finn was as he got closer to dying. Like he didn’t seem to care.
“Don’t you know?” Toby says to June. “That’s the secret. If you always make sure you’re exactly the person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you won’t care if you die tomorrow.”
I’m not sure I agree with this completely. I think that if I could make sure I was exactly the person I hoped to be, I would want to live for a long, long time as that person. But I think it is applicable in a wider sense. If we all could figure that out, how to be exactly who we hope to be, there would be so much less anguish and fear. I think we could let people live how they wanted to live—gay or straight—because we would each know ourselves, and that would maybe be enough that no one else would rant in the aisle of Target about how gay (black, Jewish, fat, Hispanic, Mormon, female, Muslim) people are ruining the world.