This is a poignant story about impossible, unspeakable loss, backward beliefs, misunderstandings, secrets, and shame for no good reason. I am not sure this book will attract a wide audience. The subject is “old hat” to some, too intense for others, but for those who lived during the era of the Aids Epidemic, those whose lives were touched by someone like Finn or Toby, a homosexual couple, this book will be very moving, meaningful and memorable.
Junie Elbus was a dreamer, a "romantic" as her Uncle Finn said. She was young; she wanted to live in medieval times, become a falconer, or a teacher. Her older sister, Greta, at sixteen was a senior in high school. She was more grounded. An achiever, she was bright as well as a talented performer. Both Elbus parents were Accountants who worked together in a business partnership. The book tells the story of this family, forced to face the revelation of homosexuality and the shame associated with Aids, the disease with no known cure or even treatment. It takes place in the 1980’s, when Aids was a fairly unknown and unforgiving disease. It was a death sentence. It was a time when Aids was also the hidden disease. When victims died, it was said they died from unconfirmed causes. The method of transmission was uncertain, creating fear and isolating those infected. The gay community was ostracized and ridiculed, making the situation much worse. The victims were pariahs; they suffered alone, for the most part, unless they were tended by those who were suffering along with them.
Fourteen year old June is the godchild of her Uncle Finn, whom she absolutely adores, but unknown to her, until his death, is his homosexuality. Her mom has hidden his partnership from her, and she has refused to acknowledge his partner in any way, either before his death or afterwards, forcing June to make decisions the adults refused to consider. Her coming of age was both tender and painful as she faced her uncle’s death, his formerly unknown partner Toby’s wish to develop a friendship with her, her older sister Greta’ coldness and jealousy, her parent’s work schedule, her mother’s fears and her own loneliness and neediness. Perception is a looming issue in this story; there is the perception of normal, of sexuality, lying, drinking, love, friendship, talent, capability, reality, danger and fantasy. Both parents want June to be more involved socially, more successful like her sister, whom they excessively praise and admire, even as she deteriorates before their eyes, although they are blind to her decline.
As I read the book, I wondered how many people reading it could truly identify with it, had actually lived through it with anyone, was familiar with Bellevue Hospital, with the lonely wraiths walking the halls dejectedly, because no one would touch them, no one was there to comfort them as they withered and wasted away. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the robed, sad men slowly shambling down the hallways, sadness and pain written on their gaunt faces, alone, unwanted, spurned and humiliated. I remember the time clearly because I was touched by the tragedy, but still, I never rejected my gay friend, whose life must have been one of secret horror, since he could never truly be who he was, and even after being diagnosed, he could never admit that he was homosexual or bisexual, rather he said he had cancer, although he had Aids. It was just not discussed. I watched with anguish knowing this man so dear to me was doomed. I was grateful that he had a partner who would stand by him, with him, but sad when she refused to be tested or to take any type of preventive treatment, even after losing her own brother to the dreaded disease, as well.
I wondered how many reading the story would have been mature enough and brave enough to do the things that June did, to visit, drink from the washed glasses, touch the hands, kiss the cheeks, hug and offer solace to the sufferer. My heart breaks when I think of my friend’s unnecessary shame, for his unnecessary loneliness and for his misfortune to have gotten Aids before the drugs to help him were available. My heart aches because of the ignorance of the adults in the room, when the child had more compassion and willingness to learn and understand than all the learned people around her who instead of loving and helping the victim, were busy protecting themselves from the shame associated with the disease, for knowing someone with the disease brought on unrealistic fears and friends who rejected them. I am glad that Aids is no longer the dreaded disease it once was and sorry for its earliest of victims.