A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Readers will learn a great deal about Alaska, our 49th state. The book is set in 1970, only 11 years after statehood, and most of the teen characters have parents who protested the idea of their territory becoming an official state, for various reasons but primarily because it would change hunting and fishing laws and how others saw native customs. Teens will also find out the differences between the racial and ethnic groups that live in Alaska (Indians, Eskimo, white/European, and so on). The way fish camps and commercial fishing work also is described in detail.
Everyone is more than they might seem at first glance. Be honest about your feelings, ask for help, and understand that some people are better than others about hiding pain, insecurity, and sadness. Find people who see the real you -- whether it's a best friend, family member, or romantic partner.
Positive Role Models
All of the teens who narrate their stories are courageous, humble, intelligent (in various ways), and sensitive. They have dreams and desires but also basic needs such as a family and a close friend who loves them unconditionally. They all go through something difficult but come out stronger because of it.
Violence & Scariness
One father dies in a plane crash; another father dies at sea. Still another father is abusive and in prison; he later injures his ex-wife and points a gun at his child. A young woman is in an ATV accident and ends up in a coma. A young man nearly drowns when he jumps overboard.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
One character's relationship with her boyfriend progresses from flirting and kissing to one night of unprotected sex, which leads to a pregnancy. Two characters fall in love after spending weeks together on a fishing boat; they kiss passionately.
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Occasional uses of "s--t," "slut," and racist or sexual insults, such as a character recalling how a white boy said he knew how to use his "oosik" (Native word for a mammal's penis) if she wanted to give it a try or how it smells like "muktuk" (whale blubber) when an Eskimo girl is nearby.
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Products & Purchases
Spam, Tang, Hill Bros. Coffee.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Several characters, most of whom are Native, are depicted as day-drinking alcoholics, especially Dora's parents and her mom's friends. Other supporting characters smoke cigarettes.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Smell of Other People's Houses is Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's award-winning debut YA novel. It's a historical drama about four poor or middle-class Alaskan teens whose storylines intersect in 1970, only 11 years after the territory became the 49th state. The adolescents deal with heavy themes such as teen pregnancy, abuse, poverty, parental abandonment/incarceration/alcoholism, racism, and more, but the writing and pacing are accessible for middle school readers. Despite the occasionally mature subject matter, there's only occasional strong language ("s--t," "slut") and violence (a father dies in a plane crash; another father points a gun at his child but doesn't shoot; a teen ends up in a coma from an accident). Readers will learn a great deal about the self-sufficiency, grit, humility, and generosity of Alaskans.
Is It Any Good?
Fourth-generation Alaskan Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock conjures realistic, stunning descriptions of 1970 Fairbanks and environs, making her simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming story come alive. All the narrators are equally as compelling, whether it's figuratively orphaned Ruth, who doesn't know how to handle a personal crisis when her grandmother treats her like she's invisible; dancing Alyce, who saves Sam only to realize he's saved her as well; angry, bitter Dora, who gets lucky with a bet but has no idea what she'd use the money for when all she wants is to be a full part of Dumpling's family; and strong, determined Hank, who just wants to keep his little brothers safe and away from their mother's boyfriend. At times it's obvious how the stories overlap, but other times it's a sweet surprise.
Author Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock suggests that above all else, Alaskans are humble, frugal, unassuming people who work hard and don't draw unnecessary attention to themselves. In one early and terrible scene, Ruth's grandmother chops off her beautiful long blond hair after she vainly replies to a compliment with "I'm pretty all over." In the hierarchy of sins, vanity is at the top to Alaskans like Ruth and Lily's Gran. Perhaps that's the reason why Hitchcock's writing is beautiful but economical -- no flowery or purple prose, only gorgeous and to-the-point sentences. One almost wishes for an epilogue to ensure that these poor, thoughtful, caring kids get a happy future, but the glimpse of happiness is enough; anything more would be an indulgence.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.