A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
What's the story?
THE SMELL OF OTHER PEOPLE'S HOUSES is a William C. Morris honor book, awarded by the American Library Association for best young-adult debut. It follows the stories of four Alaskan teens in 1970, a mere 11 years after the territory achieved statehood. Ruth, 16, and her little sister Lily, 11, live with their grim, religious grandmother in a low-income neighborhood of Fairbanks, because their mother had a breakdown a decade earlier when their father died in a plane crash on his way back from lobbying against statehood. Ruth has a secret she has no idea how to share. Dora is an Inupiat teen with an alcoholic mother and imprisoned father. She lives with Dumpling and Bunny's loving Athabascan Indian family down the street from Ruth and Lily. Alyce, who's slightly better off, is a ballerina with divorced parents who spends her summers on her father's commercial fishing boat. And then there's Hank, who is stowing away on a boat headed for the Lower 48 with his younger brothers Sam and Jack, until Sam accidentally ends up overboard. The narrative weaves together each of the stories so all the characters are intertwined in emotional, romantic, and life-changing ways.
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.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the representation of poverty and race in The Smell of Other People's Houses. What did you learn about indigenous peoples of Alaska? Did you know there was a difference between Eskimos and Indians in Alaska?
Which of the romances did you root for? Which ones seemed unhealthy?
What did you think about the portrayal of sex? Were the consequences believable? Do you think there are teens who would break up with someone if they stopped wanting to have sex?
Does The Smell of Other People's Houses make you want to learn more about Alaska? What was surprising to learn about the "new" state in the book?
- Author: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Topics: Brothers and Sisters, Friendship, High School, History, Misfits and Underdogs
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Wendy Lamb
- Publication date: February 23, 2016
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 12 - 18
- Number of pages: 240
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks
- Award: ALA Best and Notable Books
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