The Smell of Other People's Houses

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Smell of Other People's Houses Book Poster Image
Poignant coming-of-age tale about four 1970 Alaskan teens.

Parents say

age 2+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

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.

Positive Messages

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 & Representations

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

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.

Sex

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.

Language

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.

Consumerism

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.

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.

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Teen, 13 years old Written byduyutong March 20, 2017

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?

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