That’s What Broke Her

the book: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

published 2012

from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

Tell the Wolves 2

[The narrator, June, is fifteen. The book is set in the US, mostly in 1986.]

Going into the woods by yourself is the best way to pretend you’re in another time. … Usually I put myself in the Middle Ages. Usually England. … I make sure I bring along an old Gunne Sax dress of [my sister] Greta’s from when she was twelve. … I got the boots, which are black suede with crisscross leather laces right up the front, at the medieval festival at the Cloisters with [my uncle] Finn. … I didn’t tell him this, but I made sure to choose a pair two sizes two big. I didn’t care how many pairs of socks I’d have to wear with them. I never wanted to grow out of those boots.

[June’s parents are both accountants, and each year by the end of “tax season” they are exhausted, and sick of work.]

I really wondered why people were always doing what they didn’t like doing. It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half that size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn’t be a mother and it was likely you wouldn’t become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you ever took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck. You’d become a baker or a librarian or a bartender. Or an accountant. And there you were. I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you’d have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed.

Tell the Wolves1

commentary: This beautiful novel is about a lot of things, and for me it dodges some bullets.

For a start, it has an adolescent narrator, which is always a minefield. But June is neither too smart nor too dumb, too knowing nor too callow, to convince as a 15-year-old. She has ideas of her own and cares very much about others, even if she doesn’t consider that many people she assumes are ‘stuck’ being bakers, librarians, bartenders or accountants may not see it that way. Reading that passage in isolation makes her seem a lot like Holden Caulfield, but broadly speaking she seems younger at heart and considerably nicer than him.

The book is at least in part about Big Issues (AIDS, and homosexuality in general, in an era even less enlightened than this one.) I often wish novelists would just get on with their stories about their characters, and let the issues reveal themselves organically. [I thought this even in the case of a book I loved: Passing, by Nella Larsen.] Tell The Wolves I’m Home definitely passes the test of being about people the issues affect, rather than being about the issues.

June’s story has a few strands of routine coming-of-age plot to it, but is essentially about her separate relationships with two adult males. Both relationships are frankly unsuitable: not in a sexual way, nor in a way that ever exactly makes us fear for her; but the author is treading some fine lines. For me it all works, in the end, and nothing that’s definitely “wrong” is condoned.

The writing is simple but intense and lovely, and crammed with small, telling, often crushingly sad moments. Sometimes we understand them better than June does, sometimes not. We learn in the very first paragraph that her Uncle Finn has AIDS and is dying. He would like his nieces to spend more time with him, and his sister (their mother)
crossed her arms over her chest, looked right into Finn’s bird-blue eyes, and told him it was just hard to find the time these days.
“Tell me about it,” he said.
That’s what broke her.

The top picture is of the harpist and singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, who at one time wore vintage Gunne Sax so much that people referred to dresses like this as ‘Joanna Newsom dresses.’ This one is pretty characteristic of the Gunne Sax label’s pre-80s designs: presumably, for her self-styled ‘Medieval outfit’, June uses a similar one.
The other pic is of the incomparable Brigitte Bardot wearing some boots. They are probably not two sizes too large and they don’t lace up the front, but they are definitely boots. And that’s good enough for me.

Thanks once more to Amy Newton for the book.

To read more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

ADDENDUM: with thanks to Gabi Coatsworth for the heads up - see comment below - here are some vintage (1970s, in this case) Olof Daughters Of Sweden boots that look a lot like June's "medieval" ones must have looked.


  1. Moira, thanks for hosting Colm.

    Colm, I think you highlight one of the big risks authors take with this sort of book: creating a convioncing adolescent voice. It's really difficult to do, and my hat is off to authors who do that well. And it's to Newsom's credit that she also weaves in discussion of the larger issues, even as she reveals June's character. And those touches (like the Gunne Sax dress) add a lot.

  2. Thanks Margot. Yes, I like teenage protagonists much more often than teenage narrators. But June is a good one; and really, all the major characters are beautifully drawn; you feel like you'd be able to start a conversation with any one of them, and know just how to pitch it.

  3. Sounds intriguing - looking forward to reading it - when I have a moment! Thanks for highlighting it here.

  4. I think the boots were probably like the ones made b Olof Daughters of Sweden - very popular in the late 70's. But I can quite see why you used the BB photo :)

    1. Thanks Gabi. I did try to find textually accurate boots, honest... I will search again now, armed with your clue.

    2. I hope you approve of the boots I found, Gabi. Thanks for your help.

  5. I loved that second paragraph of the extract. Try being in your teens in the American South in the 1960's and only accidentally going to college because your math teacher thought you should because no one in your family, including yourself, would dream that a girl would go to college. Boys yes, girls why? Sounds like a good book.

    1. Thanks, Tracy. I love this passage because it's both a strong image, and a really good example of Young Person's thinking, fitting with
      June's adolescent narrative voice perfectly. The process described is not always inexorable - as you demonstrated by going to college. But equally, for many people, ways to avoid the reducing of options are unavailable due to any or all of numerous prejudices and disadvantages.

    2. Very true, Colm. Working in a California community college, I see more of the ways that educators are trying to provide options. But many times there are other factors preventing people from moving forward.

      What I love about June in the extract is she is so aware. As a teenager I was very unaware. I was intelligent but did not do a lot of critical thinking. It amazes me that it took me many years to react angrily to the limitations of gender or racial bias. For myself or others.

    3. That's where this book wins, Tracy - I don't think June has an unlikely level of insight, for her age. Just a sense of justice and privilege and their reasons and opposites.


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