Life is way too short to spend any more than 50 pages on a book that doesn’t wow, whether it’s loudly or quietly. I passed 50 very quickly and kept on through to the end of Tell the Wolves I’m Home. It was a quiet and intense wow.
It’s 1987 and AIDS is scary, known only for death, and unspeakable in fourteen year-old June’s family. The catch is that her Uncle Finn has it and so it needs to be acknowledged, which the family does as minimally as possible. When Finn dies, June has to figure out how to be in the world without her beloved uncle. It’s only after he dies that June learns he had a partner (another unspeakable thing) whom her mother despises (ditto). Prejudice is explored in several ways – Finn’s gayness, HIV of course, “correct” kinds of love, the “correct” path to maturity. June struggles with all of these as she carries the pain of losing Finn.
Author Carol Rifka Brunt’s descriptions of Finn as he becomes sicker and sicker reminded me of my early days in HIV education work, when men with purpled faces of Kaposi’s sarcoma were a common sight. She also captures the wheeze of pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) and the telltale AIDS-thin body of wasting. I remember men and women so tiny it seemed a miracle they were walking.
You don’t see any of that so much these days. For those in Canada (especially in BC) the treatment options make HIV a better medical diagnosis than it has been in the past. With treatment, someone with HIV can live a lifespan similar to what they might have without HIV. It can definitely have its ups and downs as chronic diseases do, but overall it’s better.
Outside the doctor’s office is different- stigma has stuck around. While a doctor I know says she thinks HIV can be more manageable than diabetes (a medical colleague echoed her thoughts this week), she acknowledges that diabetes doesn’t have the same stigma. HIV is still a source of worry and shame. It’s still the secret you don’t want the neighbours to know about, or else they might not want your kids to play with yours. Lack of knowledge about HIV transmission is still a big deal, as my coworker Sangam finds out all the time when she goes out to provide training sessions. Many people still don’t know the basics, and stigma and fear are the result. At my workplace we are trying to change that.
But back to The Wolves. It features AIDS, but isn’t all about AIDS. As the mom of a teen, I could see the agony of June. And having been a teen who often felt confused by life as it unfolded, I could relate. It’s a great read about the shapes of love, and the strangeness and familiarity of families. Add it to your list.
I read a story on Friday about 48 year old Rachel Dilling in the UK who had no idea she could be at risk for HIV because she thought only people in Africa got it. As the article’s author points out, before we readers jump on the “Whaaat? How could she possibly be so ignorant?” […]
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