01 Mar / The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock [in Shelf Awareness]
Set in remote 1970 Alaska, when indigenous communities still mourned losses that came with statehood in 1959, The Smell of Other People’s Houses explores relationships that bind, falter, recover, and flourish. First-time novelist Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock introduces the distinct voices of four teenagers who, over four seasons, undergo drastic changes: Ruth, raised by her stern grandmother, poignantly realizes how “houses with moms in them … tend to smell better”; Dora has the bad luck of winning the lottery, which brings her unwanted attention from her unstable parents; Alyce worries that her dedication to ballet means alienating her fisherman father; and Stan is determined to protect his two younger brothers after the loss of their parents – one forever gone, the other made neglectful from desperate loneliness.
Resonating details – soap-making nuns, Goodwill boots, orca whales, a name scribbled on a bathroom paper towel – create an intimate narrative about a troubled community in which too many young people have seen too much: “My mom loves to laugh, especially when nothing is funny,” Dora remarks. “It’s an important trait to have around here, but I’m afraid I didn’t inherit it.” What lingers beyond Hitchcock’s evocative words are the titular “smells”… of cedar, fish, disinfectant, blueberry pie, and even “the smell of too much love.”
A fourth-generation Alaskan and former public radio journalist, Hitchcock crafts an affecting story of fractured love and surprising redemption. Beyond the seemingly impossible serendipity and the deus ex machina resolutions, she writes fluidly with earnest veracity. Readers will cheer for (and weep over) the near-magical four-pronged endings – which prove to be wonderfully hopeful beginnings.
Discover: This exquisite debut novel set in 1970 Alaska is the gut-punching story of four teenagers whose hard-knock lives overlap in astonishing ways.
Readers: Young Adult