The Smell of Other People's Houses
By Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock; Wendy Lamb Books/Penguin Random House; 2016; 240 pages; $17.99
Books for young adults (known informally as YA books) are surging in popularity, which is good news to those of us who feared that young people weren't opening books anymore. In 2014, while sales of fiction and nonfiction for adults fell by 3 percent, sales of YA books increased a whopping 22 percent, according to Mediabistro, a website for the media industry. But what's more interesting is that so many adults are reading books meant for children and teens, and doing this without apology. (Think "Harry Potter.") More than half of YA books are purchased by adults, who say they read them to escape the world's serious ills, for their simple plots and fast reading to (usually) happy endings, or with nostalgia for their own youths.
"The Smell of Other People's Houses" is a YA fiction book riding the wave. Designed for readers age 12 and up, it takes place in Alaska in 1970. The choice to place a YA book in a time that will seem like ancient history to today's teens might seem odd, except that the storyline requires that communication be difficult. (No cellphones!)
Additionally, the author, Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, has apparently drawn on her own memories of that time, when she was near the age of her characters. In any case, today's adult readers might well like to recall the Alaska of 1970, and today's young adults might enjoy imagining themselves living in an earlier and perhaps simpler (but in some ways more complicated) time.
Hitchcock will be a familiar name to many Alaskans. Now living in Colorado, she was born and raised in Alaska as a third-generation Alaskan. She worked for many years commercial fishing, reporting for Alaska Public Radio, and hosting and producing "Independent Native News." This is her first book, a fine debut.
The book is less a novel than a series of interconnected and alternating stories told by four teenage characters (three girls and a boy), each speaking in a first-person voice. Each one has family "issues" involving dead, missing, separated or abusive parents. All are searching for safety and to become the individuals they want to be. In the course of the book their lives intertwine (sometimes in implausible coincidences) until — unsurprisingly — they contribute to one another's happy outcomes.
Much drama occurs along the way. Drunken rampages, falls overboard, ATV accidents, unplanned pregnancies, crazy people are all part of it, but — unlike in serious adult fiction — the story never threatens to despair or end badly for anyone.
The author does an admirable job of inhabiting each of the characters and making them believable. They are, like real Alaska teenagers, adventurous and quick to figure things out for themselves, even as they're sometimes prone to self-doubt and melodrama. They don't wait around for someone else to tie up a boat — or launch one for a rescue. It's especially nice to see girls drawn as complex, capable characters with fish blood on their faces and big ambitions.
Spot-on Alaska scenes
Alaska looms large throughout. The sections involving a fish camp on the Yukon River and commercial trolling in Southeast Alaska are especially well-drawn and true to Alaska (now as then).
"Up and down the Yukon, fish wheels punctuate the river looking like miniature carnival rides, with long-handled scoops made of chicken wire, turned by the river's current. Dumpling has told me that there is nothing more exciting than reaching inside the fish box and lifting a salmon out by its mouth."
And, on the troller, "Sam ran over to the stabilizer propped on the deck, undid the chain, and threw the weight overboard like he'd been doing it forever. Stabilizers are heavy weights on chains that are a pain to haul back in, so Dad avoids using them until it's so choppy we're flopping around like a tiny toy in a very large bathtub."
The book's unusual title, the author tells us in her acknowledgments section, came from a writing prompt to "write about the smell of other people's houses." In the first chapter, the narrator notes the difference between the unpleasant smell of the home she shares with her grandmother and the home of a wealthy boyfriend, which smells like cedar and "store-bought everything." The theme extends through the book, to some degree, as the characters all discover the "homes" where they belong and redefine for themselves the meaning of "family."
Sensory descriptions of smell are dominant throughout, saturating nearly every page and likely evoking for readers their own sharp memories based on smells. The Goodwill store "smells like everyone's mud room in spring during break-up season, moldy and sweaty with a hint of thawing dog shit, because it's on the bottom of every shoe." Southeast Alaska smells like "the minty Tongass rain forest with its huge cedars and hemlocks and all its lush greenery." Boxes in a garage smell "like my dad's aftershave," and a hot summer day "smells smoky from distant wildfires." The car deck on a ferry "is a sensory overload of diesel, mold, and exhaust from all the vehicles."
"The Smell of Other People's Houses" is newly released. Check the author's book-tour schedule at her website, hitchcockbs.com.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."