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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944

Author: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (b. 1965)

First published: 2016

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: 1970

Locales: Fairbanks, Alaska; Canada

Principal characters

Ruth, a sixteen-year-old being raised by her Catholic grandmother

Lily, her younger sister

Dora , her neighbor, a sixteen-year-old Inupiat girl...

(The entire section contains 944 words.)

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Author: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (b. 1965)

First published: 2016

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: 1970

Locales: Fairbanks, Alaska; Canada

Principal characters

Ruth, a sixteen-year-old being raised by her Catholic grandmother

Lily, her younger sister

Dora, her neighbor, a sixteen-year-old Inupiat girl with abusive parents

Dumpling, an Athabascan girl, Dora's friend

Alyce, a teenage ballerina

Hank, a runaway protecting his younger brothers

The Story

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's novel The Smell of Other People's Houses is set in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1970 and has four narrators. In the prologue, which depicts Ruth's childhood, a young Ruth delights in her free-spirited mother, who puts wildflowers in whiskey bottles, and her father who is a hunter. After Ruth's father is killed in a plane accident, Ruth's mother gives birth to Lily and disappears. Ruth and Lily are left to be raised by their maternal grandmother, Gran, a severe Catholic woman living in Fairbanks. Gran hates vanity and cuts off all of Ruth's beautiful hair to make her point. As a teenager in 1970, Ruth delights in the cedar smell of her rich boyfriend's house. Ruth, Lily, and their friends, the main characters of the book, live in a poor neighborhood called Birch Park. Ruth agrees to sleep with her boyfriend and, inevitably, soon discovers she is pregnant. Courtesy of Wendy Lamb Books

Dora, Ruth's Inupiat neighbor, recently escaped her sexually abusive father and alcoholic mother. Her father in jail and her mother living at the bar, Dora lives with her friend Dumpling's family. Dumpling's family is Athabascan, another Alaskan native tribe. They care for Dora as one of their own. Still, Dora must contend with her mother, who tricks her into shopping at the Salvation Army just to get cash for the bar. But then a stroke of luck: Dora wins the Ice Classic, a bet on when the ice on the river will break in the spring. She guesses the almost exact time that the ice will break and wins two thousand dollars.

Gran, who never says a single word to Ruth about her growing belly, sends Ruth to a convent many miles away. Ruth slowly befriends the nuns, discovers that Gran was raised there, and learns about her mother's mental illness. Meanwhile, another Fairbanks girl, Alyce, goes on her annual fishing trip with her father and uncle. Alyce is a talented ballerina, but she is missing her big college audition to work on the boat. She is too afraid to ask her dad to skip the summer because it is the only time she sees him.

Simultaneously, Hank and his younger brothers, sixteen-year-old Sam and fourteen-year-old Jack, are escaping a bad home situation. They stow away on a southbound ferry, but on the first day of their voyage, Sam disappears. Hank and Jack are distraught. Alyce, however, in her tiny fishing boat, sees Sam go overboard into a pod of orcas. She saves him in an inflatable raft. He joins their tiny crew. Alyce's dad, seeing how Alyce cares for Sam, finds out that his brothers are in Fairbanks—he also finds out about the audition and sends the two back to Fairbanks together. Through a lucky string of events, Hank and Jack find their way to Fairbanks, but on the way, Hank meets a very pregnant Ruth.

Dora, Dumpling, and Dumpling's younger sister Bunny are also nearby at their annual fishing camp. Per Ruth's request, Dumpling tries to deliver a note to Ruth's mom at the mental institution. The interaction goes poorly—the woman is too far gone to understand. On the way back to fishing camp, Dumpling has an accident and falls into a coma. Dora blames Ruth for her friend's injury and tells Gran as much when the family returns to Fairbanks. Gran softens and opens up to Dora. She begins to rethink the way she raised the girls. The book, divided by seasons, ends in the early winter. Dumpling wakes from her coma. Ruth returns home and forgives Gran. She has named the baby after Gran and chooses an adoptive couple in which the man is a hunter and the woman puts wildflowers in whiskey bottles. Hank and his brothers reunite. Alyce performs her audition and gets into a dancing school. Dora's father, released from prison, tries to take her money and kill her mother. Dora succeeds in saving her mother, and her father is sent back to jail.

Critical Evaluation

The Smell of Other People's Houses is Hitchcock's first novel. It explores themes of friendship, hardship, escape, and luck. Aspects of the realist tale—Dora's jackpot, the meeting of Hank and Ruth—suggest magical realism in their coincidence, but the book never totally veers in that direction. Hitchcock's prose, and her all-encompassing view of an earlier Alaska, is elegant and vivid in its poetry.

The Smell of Other People's Houses received modestly positive reviews. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that the "gutsiness of these four teens who, at heart, are trying to find their places in the world and survive against challenging odds, will resonate with readers of all ages." A reviewer for Kirkus praised Hitchcock's "journalist's eye for detail"—Hitchcock, a former commercial fisherman, was born and raised in Alaska—but expressed disappointment in her "pat" ending. Hitchcock weaves an elaborate tale of intersecting lives, but the conclusions to these storylines undercut and "minimize" the character's very real troubles, the reviewer wrote.

Further Reading

  • Review of The Smell of Other People's Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock. Kirkus Reviews, 3 Nov. 2015, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/bonnie-sue-hitchcock/the-smell-of-other-peoples-houses. Accessed. 28 Mar. 2018.
  • Review of The Smell of Other People's Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock. Publishers Weekly, 9 Nov. 2015, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-553-49778-6. Accessed. 28 Mar. 2018.
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