This is going to be a little different than other Book Club Thursday posts. This is the academic essay I wrote for my Columbia University application. I was asked to write a response to a recent book I had read.
I believe no two people ever read the same book; we each bring our own experiences to our readings. If you’ve never lost anyone, for instance, Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home may not speak to you as loudly as it does me.
Brunt’s story handles loss beautifully. Like grief, the book starts out heavy, almost too heavy to read, and becomes lighter as it goes. The first-person narration allows the reader to traverse the grief process as the main character does, but its true brilliance is how it includes her family’s grief as well.
Finn, the man whose death starts the story, creates a painting also titled Tell the Wolves I’m Home, prompted by his AIDS diagnosis. When he asks his niece to sit for it, he simply says it’s because she and her sister are “at the right age” (pg. 106). Since it’s clear by the time it’s completed that he painted it because he was dying, it can be inferred that he has gone from denial to acceptance during its creation (pg. 1). In his final days, he asks his partner Toby to add five buttons to the portrait, sending him and his nieces on their own journey through the five stages of grief (pg. 42; 183). June, the narrator and youngest niece, begins to understand its purpose when she finds a wolf in the painting’s negative space. Her uncle, the artist, taught her to see what wasn’t there through the things that were, just like she could see her uncle’s absence in the rest of her life (pg. 114-115).
June, her sister Greta, and their mother Danni are all mourning Finn’s death, but they have lost other things they must grieve for as well. As they pass through the five stages of grief, the portrait undergoes its own changes.
When it is first brought to the girls’ home, shortly after the funeral, Danni is not ready to remove it from its black garbage bag wrapping. Thinking of Toby, she says, “Just thinking about him…You’d think things would turn out a little bit fair.” (pg. 26). As the book progresses, it becomes obvious she blames Toby for the AIDS that killed her brother and her brother’s insistence on “coming out” as gay, even banning him from the funeral. She is in denial, believing she can separate her brother from his sexuality.
Eventually the painting is put into a safety deposit box, but June and her sister Greta are given keys so they can view the painting whenever they want (pg. 104). June doubts Greta will go, so she’s surprised when she sees the painting again and realizes Greta has done something to it. She has added the outline of a skull to her hand in the portrait (pg. 130).
At this time, Greta has been offered a role on Broadway. While her parents see it as a “dream come true,” she sees it as an early end to the childhood that was already cut short by her skipping a grade (pg. 283). Only sixteen, she feels cheated. She becomes irritable, pushing away her friends, drinking too much, and ignoring the things she once loved. These symptoms and the skull she added to the painting signify her depression as she mourns her lost childhood.
In response, June paints gold strands into both girls’ hair so they look more alike. June and Greta were close until June developed a close relationship with their Uncle Finn. When Finn dies, June feels truly alone. She is mourning all the love she’s lost, both Finn’s and her sister’s. With Finn gone, she begins to go to Greta’s parties and play rehearsals, even trying to accept some of the horrible things her sister says about Toby. The whole time, she is bargaining: “If I give up my singular claim on Finn,” she’s asking, “Can I have my sister back?”
But Greta felt the loss of their relationship before June did. She has already reached anger and changes the portrait again, painting her lips red. June finds she “looked fearsome” (pg. 268). It reminds her of the day her sister destroyed all the gifts Finn and Toby gave her and inspires her to think of the words from Requiem: Dies Irae, day of wrath (pg. 269).
With the destruction done, the girls are able to work through their grief together while their mother’s simmers privately. She cannot move past it until the portrait is removed from its safety deposit box.
At first, seeing what the girls have done, she gets angry. But this explosion sets events in motion for the family to finally reach acceptance. Seeing another side of Greta and Toby, truly, for the first time, Danni realizes she has to accept it. She can’t change what the girls have done to the painting any more than she can change what their grief has done to them. Toby, the love of her brother’s life, is going to die alone if she doesn’t welcome him. And Finn is gone. When she chooses to accept these things, Danni, a great artist herself, adds her own touches to the painting: a silver necklace for June and a birthstone ring for Greta (pg. 349).
Finn was a great and famous artist, and a museum offers them a great sum to display his final work, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, but it must be professionally restored first. When complete, only Danni’s changes remain, but June swears she still sees the buttons’ shadows
Loss leaves us all changed. Though the world may only see the pretty parts, anyone who has suffered a loss like June’s – or like mine – will never forget what they endured to reach acceptance.
While June’s grief is clear in Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I believe each reader finds their own in what isn’t explicitly stated, in that negative space where June sees her wolf. I see my dad. Though he died eleven years ago, I still see the buttons too.