When I was 12 years old, my family moved from Idaho to Alaska. We stayed there for a couple of years before returning, but my time there was full of moose and bear sightings, riding boats along forested rivers, scrambling up glaciers, and feeling my hair freeze while I waited for the school bus. For a young person who hadn’t seen much of the world, Alaska felt like a whole new universe, but as I grow up, I realize it is completely foreign, even the people have a different kind of mindset, that makes them hardier in the harsh landscape, yet awed by its awesome beauty. But it’s not just the landscape that’s tough, many places in Alaska, despite its oil wealth, are impoverished.
The grittiness of Alaska is so deftly captured by Hitchcock in her debut YA novel – The Smell of Other People’s Houses – that I didn’t want to put it down. I was immediately transported to the “Last Frontier,” and the characters are so incredibly real and tenderly drawn, the action swift, that the book sweeps you in immediately. It’s hardly a surprise, though. Hitchcock was a longtime reporter in her native Fairbanks before she started writing fiction, and her many years of interrogating daily life in Alaska has paid off in a beautifully realized novel.
The book is set in the Fairbanks of the 1970s – yet it has an almost timeless feel – and it follows the lives of four very different teens (one a talented dancer who feels bound by her family to stay in town though she has an opportunity to escape for college, an orphaned teen who falls pregnant, a boy caring for his brothers who is running from something, and a Native girl who lives with her friend while her alcoholic parents are missing in action). The stories ultimately converge, but it’s hard to say too much without spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say that Hitchcock’s debut is masterful. There’s plenty for everyone here – fate, luck, family, faith, the status of indigenous peoples, Alaskan wilderness – and I would push this book into the hands of adults and teens alike.