Friday, November 15, 2019

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Hearkening back to the mid-1980s, Tell the Wolves I'm Home, allows an insight into the misunderstanding of the AIDS epidemic and the tragic deaths of so many of its victims. 

June Elbus, the fourteen year-old protagonist of the novel, lives with her older sister, Greta, and her parents who are accountants in Westchester, New York, only a short train ride from the city. She has developed a very strong relationship with her Uncle Finn, who is also her godfather. Finn is a world renowned painter who lives in New York City. He is gay and, as readers learn early on, dying of AIDS. Before he dies, it is his desire to paint a portrait of June and Greta. He finishes it right before he dies. The painting eventually is given to the Elbus family and stored in a safety deposit box at a local bank. Only June and Greta have keys to the box. 

At Finn's June notices a stranger, who does not come into the service. Danni, June's mother, harbors a great deal of animosity toward the man, whom she blames for killing her brother. It is Toby, Finn's boyfriend. As the novel progresses, Toby and June become friends as they both try to deal with the death of the person whom they both loved so dearly. Finn has written notes to each asking them to look after the other. June begins to realize that the person whom her mother despises is not really the awful person he is conjured up to be. In fact, he is the innocent victim of AIDS.

Throughout the novel, family dynamics are revealed in the relationship of Greta and June. Both are dealing with issues that manifest themselves in a strong sibling rivalary, while both deal with almost being orphans during the tax season. Greta is starring as Bloody Mary in the high school production of South Pacific and virtually coerces June into attending some of the rehearsals and parties after that are held in the woods behind the school. The woods have special meaning to June as this is where she goes for solitude and contemplation. June rescues Greta twice from the parties  when she has become intoxicated. 

 On the evening of the play Greta again invites June to join her, but she can't because she has been grounded for having defiled the painting. When Greta doesn't come home, she enlists the aid of Toby, who because of his alien status, is arrested while trying to rescue Greta. It is not long after that Toby succumbs to pneumonia and also dies. 

The novel is a fairly easy and quick read. The characters are three dimensional and play a role in the development of relationships between parents, friends, and relatives. The tremendous dread of coming into contact with a person who has AIDS reminds the reader of how dire the disease was in its early days. Tell the Wolves I'm Home won the Alex Award in 2013. This award is presented by YALSA to an adult book that has special appeal to the young adult reader. 

Circe by Madeline Miller

As a classics major in college and a Latin teacher after, I am sure my appreciation of this novel by Madeline Miller is a bit more exuberant than most people. Miller takes the mythology surrounding the witch, Circe, and gives her a persona that has not been explored before. 

To say that Circe is anything less than brilliant would be diminishing this piece of literature. Circe's place in the the mythological world is not one that one would think would warrant an entire novel. For most readers, she is a small part of Homer's Odyssey or Ovid's Metamorphoses. Miller gives her an entire book that begins when she is a young girl and follows her life as she encounters some of those very well-know characters from mythology. The novel is told in first person by Circe and with that technique the reader knows her from her inner feelings to her outward actions. She is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and Perse. Her voice and appearance are not goddess-like and she is not favored by her parents or the mortal,Glaucos, with whom she falls in love.  She is kind as she watches Prometheus being punished for giving fire to humans and is consequently exiled to her island of Aiaia, not for the kindness to Prometheus, but for changing Scylla, Glaucos" intended, into a horrible monster. 

On her island she becomes content with her tamed lions and wolves. She interacts with many familiar persons from mythology. Daedalus is a special person to her because of his kindness and she feels much empathy when he loses his son, Icarus. Jason and Medea come to her for catharsis, a cleansing of them for the crimes that they have committed. This was one of the most touching of the scenes with Circe. Circe is summoned from the island to help her sister, wife of Minos, give birth to the Minotaur, another memorable escapade.

But it is the relationship with Odysseus that becomes central to Circe's life. He arrives on the way home from Troy with one of 12 ships and his sailors, whom Circe promptly turns into pigs. Odysseus and Circe become lovers and after he leaves the island a year later, she gives birth to his son, Telegonus. Theirs is a love story filled with every emotion imaginable in a relationship. The love that she shows Telegonus is unbounded and ideally what every mother would do to protect her son. 

In Miller's interpretation of Circe, the witch is not so much a horrible witch, but a sorceress who demonstrates empathy, love, and compassion. The writing is descriptive, emotional, and fluid. It really is brilliant. 

Madeline Miller spoke on 11 November 2019 at the Carnegie Music Hall without a note and extemporaneously. She was as brilliant in person as in her writing. She gave such insight into how she interpreted Circe as well as how she wanted her to figure in the canon of mythology. As Circe was a small portion of the Odyssey, she wanted Odysseus to be a small portion of Circe.  This novel is one for the ages.