It’s easy to describe a book as a coming of age story just because a character is young and learning something new about the world. But, ideally, aren’t we all learning new things about the world all the time? Don’t we want to grow and mature into better ways to interact with and treat people, even after we’re grownups? I think so, and maybe that’s why the coming of age story is such an attractive genre — we relate to it no matter where we are in life.
Having said that, I suppose Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming of age story, because it follows June, a female teenager, as she navigates complicated feelings about her family. She’s at the perfect age for this: The time of life when you understand more than adults think you do, but you’re still not totally getting it right.
June is very close to her uncle, who is gay and dying of AIDS in New York City in the 80’s. Her mother won’t tell her the whole truth about what’s going on, she feels more and more pushed away from her sister, her dad seems oblivious, and it turns out her uncle may not even be telling her the truth. She escapes into fantasies about the middle ages, and to some extent into a world of art, music and beauty that she’s only able to enter into through what her uncle shares with her.
Most of June’s heartbreak in the story comes when she realizes her uncle has a life without her. In some ways, her reaction is childish. But doesn’t it always hurt when you feel like you’ve given all of yourself to another person, and you discover they haven’t given everything to you? When you realize you may not be the most important person to the one who’s most important to you? Because they’ve held back some things, everything they have given you can feel like a lie. If feeling like this is “coming of age,” I guess I’m coming of age all the time.
The love in this story doesn’t fit into easy categories. There is familial love and romantic love here, but they bleed into each other and get messy and confusing. Because our society is so obsessed with romantic love that it doesn’t really have categories for love that doesn’t fit into that mold, June chooses to use her imagination to escape into the middle ages, a time when loyalty and fidelity meant a lot, when it was common for a love to remain unconsummated, and when restraint between lovers was as valid as passion. But as those qualities get more traction in her real life with her own family, she needs her fantasies less and less.
A lot of novels are written about dysfunctional families, and I don’t like most of them, because often the characters are bitter at the core. I suppose that sometimes people do get so hurt that all they do is blindly lash out at each other, but as far as fiction goes, it always strikes me as one-dimensional and not very interesting.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home sounds like that kind of story, but it isn’t. It’s a story of a dysfunctional family, sure. But it’s also a story of beauty, and the ability of love to heal even when the truth is obscured. These characters hurt each other, but they’re still likeable, because, instead of acting out of selfishness, their mistakes come out of love.