“Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s Alaska is beautiful and wholly unfamiliar…. A thrilling, arresting debut.” —Gayle Forman, New York Times bestselling author of If I Stay and I Was Here
“[A] singular debut. . . . [Hitchcock] weav[es] the alternating voices of four young people into a seamless and continually surprising story of risk, love, redemption, catastrophe, and sacrifice.” —The Wall Street Journal
This deeply moving and authentic debut set in 1970s Alaska is for fans of Rainbow Rowell, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, and Benjamin Alire Saenz. Intertwining stories of love, tragedy, wild luck, and salvation on the edge of America’s Last Frontier introduce a writer of rare talent.
Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck strikes. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance, with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.
Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This unforgettable William C. Morris Award finalist is about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed.
William C. Morris Finalist
Shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal
Amelia Elizabeth Walden Book Award for Young Adult Fiction
Tayshas Reading List—Top 10 List
New York Public Library’s Best 50 Books for Teens
Chicago Public Library, Best of the Best List
Shelf Awareness, Best Children’s & Teen Books of the Year
Nominated to the Oklahoma Sequoya Book Award Master List
Nominated to the Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award
“Hitchcock’s debut resonates with the timeless quality of a classic. This is a fascinating character study—a poetic interweaving of rural isolation and coming-of-age.” —John Corey Whaley, award-winning author of Where Things Come Back and Highly Illogical Behavior
“As an Alaskan herself, Bonnie Sue Hitchcock is able to bring alive this town, and this group of poor teens and their families that live there.” —Bustle.com
About the Author
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock was born and raised in Alaska. She worked many years fishing commercially with her family and as a reporter for Alaska Public Radio stations around the state. She was also the host and producer of “Independent Native News,” a daily newscast produced in Fairbanks, focusing on Alaska Natives, American Indians, and Canada’s First Nations. Her writing is inspired by her family’s four generations in Alaska.
Read an Excerpt
The Smell of Other People’s Houses
At some point I stopped waiting for Mama to come back. It’s hard to hold on to a five-year-old dream, and even harder to remember people after ten years. But I never stopped believing there had to be something better than Birch Park, something better than living with Gran.
When I was sixteen Ithought maybe it was a boy named Ray Stevens. His father was a private detective and a hunting guide in the bush. His family had just built a new house on a lake where they parked their floatplane, and in winter they could snow-machine all the way down Moose Creek from their back door.
The Stevenses’ whole house was made of fresh-cut cedar. All of Ray’s clothes smelled like cedar, and it made me sneeze when I got close to him, but I got close anyway.
Cedar is the smell of swim team parties at their house and the big eight-by-ten-inch Richard Nixon photograph that hung in the living room. Cedar is the smell of Republicans. It’s the smell of sneaking from Ray’s older sister’s room (Anna also swam on my relay team; I befriended her out of necessity) and into Ray’s room, where I crawled into his queen-sized bed facing the sliding glass doors that looked out on the lake. How many sixteen-year-old boys had a queen-sized bed? I’m guessing one, and it had sheets that smelled like cedar and Tide, and they held a boy with curly blond hair, bleached from the swimming pool. He was the best diver in the state and I was only on a dumb relay team, but he sought me out anyway. We could have drowned in our combined smells of chlorine and ignoranceguess which part I was?
He knew how to French-kiss, which tasted like a forest of promises once I got used to it. Because I was Catholic, and smelled stiff instead of wild, he promised not to do anything but touch me lightly and only in certain places, where the smell wouldn’t give me away when I went back to my own house, which held nothing but the faint scent of mold in second-hand furniturealso known as guilt and sin.
At the Stevenses’, everything was fresh, like it had just been flown in from Outside, and there were no rules. Their shag carpet was so thick that in the morning I followed my deep orange footprints back to Ray’s sister’s room and pretended I’d been there all night.
I only joined the swim team because ballet hadn’t worked out. Gran was sure that any kind of dancing was just a slippery slope that butted right up to the gates of vanity. In her opinion, there was nothing worse than being vain. Lily and I paid for our vanity little by little. We paid by hiding good report cards, deflecting compliments, and staying out of sight. We paid in the confessional on Sundays. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I smiled at myself in the mirror today.”
I did that. Once. Felt so good about myself that I smiled into a mirror and twirled and danced as if I held the world in my six-year-old hands. I was going to my first dance class in my fancy pink tutu and my long blond hair was all the way down to my butt. It really was so thick and long that it made this cool scritchy-scratchy noiseacross the mesh fabric of my tutu when I swung my head from side to side. It was the tutu Daddy had bought me Outside. You couldn’t get a tutu like this in Fairbanks, and I don’t think Gran knew that it was special, or she never would have let me have something the other girls didn’t. I was so excited, and as I came up to the studio, I remember another girl and her mom going inside, too. Alyce was wearing a black leotard and plain pink tights. I could tell she was jealous, eyeing my tutu as she held open the door to let me in, and her mother said, “You have the prettiest long hair I’ve ever seen.”
“I know. I’m pretty all over,” I said to her without a second thought.
Alyce’s mother smiled at me, but then her face changed quickly as Gran’s fingers gripped me by the arm and yanked me inside. I didn’t even have time to wonder what I’d said that was wrong. Gran marched me into the bathroom, and said through gritted teeth, “Oh, you think you’re something special, do you?”
She pulled a huge pair of orange-handled scissors out of her bag, as if she carried them around waiting for moments just like this. They looked like a bird with a silver metal beak. And they were loud. I can still hear the sound of my hair being chopped offwith just a few mad snaps of the bird’s jaws. Then Gran made me walk out of the bathroom and go take my place on the piece of tape that Miss Judy put on the floor marking my spot. Nobody looked right at me, but there were mirrors onevery wall, so I could see their sideways glances. I could also see my hairsticking out in all directions, as if it had been caught in a lawn mower. No more swishing for me. I never went back to that class. And Gran never mentioned it again.
Even after all theseyears, I know that a stroke of good luck, like a rich, popular boyfriend whose family likes you, means you just have to hold your breath and hope it lastsand never, ever brag or feel too good about yourself.
That’s why I stole one of Ray’s white T-shirts and took it home to sleep with under my pillow so I could pretend my world smelled of cedar, too. No one ever suspected anything, because at Birch Park, where the sound of cockroaches chewing saltines is deafening, I just kept my head down and let Lily make all the mistakes.
“Bunny says we’re poor,” Lily announces as she and her best friend, Bunny, clatter through the door,letting in a gust of cold air. They drop their mittens and snowsuits into a big pile and trip out of their boots, knocking each other over trying not to belate for dinner.
Gran is reheating food left over after another Catholic Social Services luncheon. She works part-time typing for the archbishop, so we get first dibs on whatever food is left from their functions. Tonight’s meal was delivered to the door by Father Mike himself, with his little white collar choking him.
Selma is over and we’re setting the table. I can see Gran looking at the food, wondering if it will be enough to feed two extra mouths. She reaches for a can of Spam to stretch it out.
“I didn’t say you were poor. I said you were poorer than me and Dumpling,” Bunny says. Dumpling is her older sister.
I watch Gran sigh, which is a sign that we’re aging her. We’re always aging her, but especially Lily, and now Bunny is helping. Gran says if she didn’t have to take care of us, she’d still be a young woman. I look at her sagging boobs, then down at the tuna casserole. Too bad for Lily, there are peas in it again.
“What makes you so rich?” she asks Bunny as they jostle each other at the sink, fighting over the Joysoap.
“Fish camp,” says Bunny, “We get tons and tons of salmon at fish camp.”
“My cousin goes fishing every summer,” Selma chimes in. “She doesn’t think salmon are so special. In fact, Lily, I’m sure Alyce would trade places with youshe would love not to have fish this summer.”
Selma’s cousin Alyce is the same Alyce from that fateful ballet class. It was her mother who told me my hair was pretty.
“I don’t want to go commercial fishing and have to live on a smelly old boat,” Lily says, as if she’s just been insulted. “I want to go to fish camp like Bunny and Dumpling, near their village.”
“Yeah,” Bunny says, “our camp is way up above the Arctic Circle. We have drumming circles and dances that go on all night, and then we lay our sleeping bags out on spruce boughs and we don’t have to get up until the afternoon if we don’t want to. Me and Dumpling get to shoot mice with BB guns and roast salmon hearts over the fire, too. Better than marshmallows!” She rubs her belly and licks her lips just thinking about it.
I’ll pass on the roasted salmon hearts. But Bunny sounds braggy to me, and I glance over at Gran to see if she’s ruffled by it. She’s spooning food onto plates as if it takes so much concentration. I guess other people’s kids can be vain if they want. Lily better watch out it doesn’t rub off on her.
“Is there mayonnaise in this?” Lily asks.
She is the pickiest eater on the planet.
“Lily,” Gran says in a voice that lets Lily know mayonnaise should be the least of her worries. “Say grace.”
“Blessusolordandtheseourgiftswhichweareabouttoreceivefromthybountythroughchristourlordamenwhy-can’t-we-have-a-fish-camp?” Lily asks, without taking a breath.
Selma looks at me and we roll our eyes. Lily spends her life griping that almost everyone else in Birch Park has a fish camp. But saying it in front of Bunny puts Gran on the spot. It also shows how clueless both Lily and Bunny are if they haven’t figured this one out yet. They’re both eleven, which is plenty old enough know to where the lines are drawn.
“We don’t have a fish camp because we aren’t native,” Gran says, to her plate.
“I’m not native, I’m Athabascan,” Bunny says.
Selma and I laugh.
“What’s so funny? She is Athabascan,” says Lily. “Natives are the people like Dora’s mom, the ones who hang out all day at the barthey’re too drunk to even bother fishing.”
“That’s enough,” Gran says, slapping Lily so hard on the hand that her fork flies up and then falls with a clatter.
“No more talking while we eat this meal that Father Mike has so generously provided for us.”
Lily pushes her peasaround on her plate. Her cheeks are bright pink.
Fish camps are pretty much handed down from family to family, but maybe Gran shouldn’t have lumped all Alaska Natives together. It didn’t seem to make Bunny very happy. Especially because Bunny and Dumpling actually have the nicest parents in Birch Park. Dora’s family never goes to fish camp. Lily knows better than to gossip about Dora at the table, though.
It’s not as if we all didn’t see what happened the night Dora came running out of her house wearing only a nightgown. Her father, Bumpo, was chasing after her, calling her a whore. Ithink he got the name Bumpo because he’s always drunk and bumping into things. Bunny’s dad, Mr. Moses, was the only person brave enough to go outside and face him. Mr. Moses had a big wool blanket and he scooped Dora up in it like she was just a sack of feathers; then he set her inside the door of his own house. No matter how much Bumpo yelled in his face or threatened him with a beer bottle, Mr. Moses didn’t budge; he just stood there blocking the door that hid Dora.
It went on and on until Bumpo just sort of slumped over, all deflated. Bunny’s father led Bumpo back to his house. And the rest of us went back to pretending we didn’t see anything.
If you’re wondering why nobody called the cops, that would show how little you know about us. Whatever you happen to beblack, white, native, or purple, it doesn’t matterit’s a sin to snitch. It’s the one universal rule that being poor will buy you, for better or worse.
When Gran gets up from the table and is out of earshot, good old Selma leans in to Lily and says, “I thought the Lord provided the meal, not Father Mike.” All she gets is a halfhearted smile from my sister, who is busy piling her peas onto Bunny’s plate now that Gran isn’t looking.
Bunny eats them all in one bite, because that’s what best friends do. Then they both hop up saying they’re going to Bunny’s for Eskimo ice cream and are out the door before Gran can argue.
Lily has Bunny and I have Selma. And that’s why we haven’t gone totally batshit crazy yet, living with Gran.
Selma is the complete opposite of me. She came into the world in the most unconventional way and must have decided before she was even three days old that she was going to fall in love with her life, no matter what. (It helps that she doesn’t live with someone who might chop off her hair.) Selma has these enormous brown eyes like a seal, and for whatever reason, she doesn’t feel bound by the same rules as the rest of us, which makes her a great friend. But she doesn’t live in Birch Park, and I’m reminded of that when I hear a timid knock at the door, so light that Gran doesn’t hear it in the kitchen.
Selma’s wide eyes are laughing around the edges as she mouths silently, “Alyce.”
Alyce will sometimes drop by and pick Selma up on her way home from ballet. They both live on the other side of the river, where the houses get nicer in a hurry and the rent is much higher.
Alyce is long and lean with high cheekbones. Her hair is pinned perfectly into a bun. She’s wearing leg warmers, too, which might be fine at ballet, but in Birch Park I’m sure anyone who sees her just thinks she cut the sleeves off her sweater and is wearing them on her legs. She always looks terrified when she comes to pick up Selma. I’m not sure what she thinks will happen to her here; all she’s doing is standing on our doorstep.
“Ready to go?” she says to Selma, barely acknowledging me.
The only reason she steps inside is because it’s twenty below on the porch.
“Hi, Alyce,” I say.
“Hi,” she mumbles, looking down at the puddles of melting snow from her boots. “Too bad you missed Lily,” Selma says, as if Alyce cares. “She’d love to talk to you about fishing. Maybe you could convince your dad to take her on as a deckhand and you could get a summer off?”
“Selma” Alyce looks embarrassed.
“There’s a recruiter coming from one of the top dance colleges this summer,” Selma says to me, “but Alyce can’t get out of fishing with her dad, so she doesn’t get to audition.”
“Selma,” Alyce says, “your mom’s going to be worried. You know how she is; we should go.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book should be at the top of every bestseller list. The writing is outstanding, the characters are deep and real, and you will fall in love with them and their cleverly intertwining stories. There was no real magic in this book, but it made you believe in everyday magic, a little. It was short and to the point, and I never wanted it to end. Everyone should be talking about this book. Put it in the hands of anyone you know. I'll be re-reading it for the rest of my life.
“I’ve realized over time that houses with moms in them do tend to smell better. If I close my eyes, I can just barely remember my mother’s wildflowers in their whiskey bottles. The very distant scent of my parents lingers in my brain, as they laugh and twirl around in the kitchen. Deer blood on my father’s hands tinges all my memories of them — their skin, their hair, their clothes. The smell of too much love.” The title of this book, The Smell of Other People’s Houses, is enough to draw me in. I have always been touched by how different scents can immediately bring you to a different time and place. This book fulfilled its title. It was meaningful, and poetic. The characters are all connected by the town and time they live in, and I loved seeing it all through their different perspectives. It was filled with stories of redemption and inner strength and told in a very beautiful way. I am giving this book 4.5 stars. I recommend it for a time when you want quick read that has a lot of meaning.
I really enjoyed the story and this author's writing style. I recommend this book highly and look forward to reading more by her.
This story was set in the 1970’s, which made me a bit hesitant. It also takes place in Alaska, which made me all kinds of excited!! I hadn’t heard a thing about this book before receiving it in the mail… and I was instantly intrigued. I went in blind, and it ended up turning out pretty good. The multiple narrators in this story was such an added bonus!! There were four here, which usually feels like too many. But not this time! I loved all of the different voices and how they all weaved this intricate web of a story. Why the average/good rating? There were a few slow, slightly boring spots, which took away from my enjoyment a bit. Overall though, a very good read that surprised me quite a bit. (Thanks to Wendy Lamb Books for the review copy!)
“Houses with moms in them tend to smell better.” I loved how all the characters were tied to one another in this novel yet there were four separate stories. The stories are unique in their setting and their storylines and yet, they all come together. There was not one story that I liked better than the other for each of them took me to a place in Alaska where their world was totally different than my own and their circumstances and problems suddenly became mine. From smelling Ray, for he smells of cedar to feeling the frozen fish between my fingers, the author words gave rise to a world unlike that of my own. I love novels that can whisk me away quickly and I can become someone else for a while. Hitchcock did a superb job with her choice of words and her choice of characters in this novel. I didn’t find this novel to be an emotional read, it was more of a story being told to you by the author with great adjectives so you can sit back and imagine the world that she had created for you.
“The Smell of Other People’s Houses” is an engaging and unique literary novel that is a joy for all of the senses. What I loved most about the book is the descriptions of the sights, sounds, and obviously, the smells. They are so vivid that you feel as though you are standing in the characters’ places. Everyone knows that different houses have different smells, but the author made the smells match the personalities of those living in the houses. It’s difficult to explain, but you will see what I mean if you read the book. There are four main characters, and the story is told from each point of view. It’s very interesting to read how they interpret one another (including the smells of the others’ homes) and how their stories weave together. I also need to say that this is a wonderfully diverse book! The author grew up in Alaska and you can tell she has an intimate knowledge of the various people who make up the land. There is nothing but love for the many cultures, while also not being afraid to point out some of the systemic issues present in the area. “The Smell of Other People’s Houses” is a beautiful book meant for those who enjoy reading about the lives of others. It’s meant to be savored, not devoured, and therefore will probably be best suited for those not looking for a fast-paced plot. I can say that it is a story that will stick with me and most likely be read several more times. This review is based upon a complimentary copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Very unique story.
I have to say, I wasn't really sure what this book was going to be about/be like based off of the title. The Smell of Other People's Houses? Ummm okay...but the cover was gorgeous and grabbed my attention. So I gave it a go. HOLY WOW. The Smell of Other People's Houses contains the stories of 4 different characters. Each with their own heart wrenching tale. First there is Ruth. Ruth is harboring a secret. One that she is afraid to share. Then there is Alyce. Alyce just wants to dance, but she has to choose between dance and what she thinks her father wants. And there is Dora. The poor girl. She thinks she has managed to get away from the hell that was her life, but did she really? Then finally we have Hank who has run away from a bad life with his two brothers in tow. Each tale is different. Each character takes their own path. Yet some how all of these characters stories get entangled with the others. This story is filled with so many feels. You cannot help but feel for each character individually. There were points where I just wanted to hug them and be there for them. I was that drawn in. Not only are the stories for all the main characters great, but a lot of side characters get stories filled out too. I am very impressed with how Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock was able to put it all together and to keep them all straight. I will warn you that this story is told from 4 different viewpoints. So you will have 4 different narrators. I only warn you of this because I know there are those out there that do not like having so many narrators to story. This being said, I did not have difficult following along with each character. I felt each had their own unique voice. This is a story that you want to pay attention to as you read it. It is the kind of story where you will miss something if you don't. I am sure that when I finally do a reread of this beautiful tale I will find so much stuff that I didn't even realize I missed. Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock is a fantastic story weaver. My Rating 5 Stars This review is based on an eARC provided by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. Find more of my reviews here: http://readingwithcupcakes.blogspot.com/
I really enjoyed reading this short little book. This book first grabbed my attention with its title. I loved the title and the purple cover is just beautiful. The story inside the cover was equally wonderful. I haven't read a lot of books set in Alaska so the setting was a big draw for me. This was one of those books that I didn't want to put down and I read most of it within a day. This book is told from multiple points of view. I really enjoyed each character's voice almost equally in this book. I think that the way the book was put together really built up my need to know what was going to happen to everyone. I loved the fact that this was not just another teen romance. In fact, there really isn't any romance in this book at all but it full of emotion. One of the main strengths of this book is the descriptions. I love that scents are included in some of the descriptions. The book isn't packed with description of different smells but they are occasionally mentioned and help give a nicely rounded complete picture of the environment. I did find myself wishing that the time period would have had a stronger feel in the story. There were moments that the 1970's setting of the book was clearly illustrated. There were other times that I almost forgot that the events take place during a different time period. I really liked that this book wasn't afraid to deal with very difficult topics. I am actually quite surprised that this one little book decided to focus on so many issues and that it ended up working so well. Poverty, teen pregnancy, and abuse all have a place in this book but I was still able to find hope in the story. It is really quite amazing that this story could have such a positive ending. I would highly recommend this book to others. It was a really engrossing story that I found hard to put down. This is the first book by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock that I have read but I would not hesitate to pick up her work in the future. I received an advance reader edition of this book from Random House Children's - Wendy Lamb Books via NetGalley for the purpose of providing an honest review.
First things first, the language in The Smell Of Other People's Houses is absolutely stunning and it beautifully illustrates the complexity of the issue at hand. When I was reading this book, I felt like I was actually there while simultaneously watching a carefully crafted masterpiece unfold before my eyes. Each word matters, each sentence is a piece of art that cannot be overlooked - just like the book itself. The Smell Of Other People's Houses is the story of four Alaskan teens in the nineteen-seventies whom are thrown together through their various secrets and who must learn to live with what they have been given. Each of their individual stories was astounding, not to mention the gorgeous complexity of their lives when they are suddenly thrust together. Ruth, Dora, Alyce, and Hank - each has a secret or something they are running from, and each must learn to rely on someone else to bear the weight of their struggles. The development of the characters, hell, the development of the plot throughout the book as a whole was breathtaking. It was simply stunning. Watching these teens -these real people -work through issues that they shouldn't have to and yet everyone can connect to in some way, brings forth one of the most profound stories in Young Adult fiction I think I've ever seen. I knew nothing of The Smell Of Other People's Houses when I got it - no synopsis, no prior mention, nada. I went down the rabbit hole that is four teens in Alaska without knowing what I was getting myself into - and boy am I glad I did. In all honesty, I think not knowing made the experience all the more powerful. I had no prior expectations, no idea what it was about - all I knew was that the cover was gorgeous and the title made me giggle. I have to say, this book is one of those rare, inevitably captivating stories that will grab you by the ankles and drag you kicking and screaming into these teen's lives. It will make you stop and think about what your home means to you, it will make you question everything you think you know - and it will make you realize that everyone, and everything, has a story, too. One thing I really liked, besides the obvious, was the amount of information I learned. I don't know how much is true and just what is fictionalized for the plot of the book, but the complete other-worldliness of Alaska and the different ways these people live just blew my mind. From the very first page, and I'm talking the Prologue here, I found myself undoubtedly and impossibly enraptured with the differences. For example, right off the bat Ruth is explaining how her favorite cut of meat is Backstrap - something I've never heard of - and she describes how her father carving the deer is just as graceful as her mother curling ribbons on presents. Just think about that for a second. Not only is there a beautiful juxtaposition of language, but the whole process of carving a deer carcass within the home has become so normal to her that she compares it with gift wrapping. It blew my mind, to be honest. That isn't the only example, but there are far too many for me to ever accurately explain. Just... read it and see for yourself.