It is the late 1950s. Many who inhabit the sprawling territory of Alaska are abuzz with concern and anticipation. There is serious talk of that vast land becoming a new addition to the United States. Numerous Alaskans of all ethnicities are suspicious of the prospect of statehood and the novel governing arrangements that would accompany it. Rugged individualists and hardworking families — who for generations have ordered their lives on fishing, hunting and other pursuits dictated by nature and shifting seasons — don’t take easily to the notion of directives and legislation from “Outside.” Nonetheless, during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, statehood became a reality on Jan. 3, 1959.
In Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s young adult novel, “The Smell of Other People’s Houses,” Ruth Lawrence is a pretty 5-year-old girl with beautiful blonde hair. Her parents are a loving couple who create a happy home.
“Mama was the kind of person who put wildflowers in whiskey bottles. Lupine and foxglove in the kitchen, lilacs in the bathroom.” Her mother is soon to give birth to Ruth’s sister Lily. She recalls her father talking about the looming threat of change “like if statehood passed we would probably lose all of our hunting and fishing rights and the Feds would run everything into the ground.”
He is part of a mission to Washington, D.C. to stop the progress of Alaska becoming the 49th state to join the union. On his return home, Ruth’s father dies in a plane crash. Lily is born a day after her mother receives a letter bearing the terrible news. After giving birth and overcome with grief, their mother vanishes from their lives. Little Ruth and the newborn are taken in by their grandmother Marguerite, a bitter woman who resides in a poor section of Fairbanks known as Birch Park. Begrudgingly, out of family loyalty, she assumes parental responsibility. Ruth relates that Gran’s home “smelled like an old person’s house, something I’d never noticed when we only visited, which hadn’t been very often.”
A fourth-generation Alaskan, first-time novelist Hitchcock knows commercial fishing well, having been with her family on many a piscatorial expedition. She has also worked in radio and given considerable focus to Native Alaskan issues along with American and Canadian First Nations topics.
After a brief prologue, her book is divided into four seasonal parts, starting with Spring. Each section is introduced by an epigraph of verse from a contemporary Alaskan poet. The olfactory sense — the sense of smell — is according, to biological science, one of the oldest of the senses in terms of evolution. In human beings, olfaction is important socially and emotionally. As the title of Hitchcock’s book suggests, odors, aromas and smells permeate her tale. The smell of fish and salt tang of the sea. The smell of an orca’s breath. The smell of food cooking, of clothes, of smoke and diesel fuel; the scent of flowers, of aftershave, of soap and cleaning products.
Now 16, Ruth is in love with a teenage boy named Ray Stevens. His family lives in a wealthier section of town. “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.” Indeed they got close. Before long Ray is dating another girl and Ruth finds that she is pregnant. Soon her grandmother arranges for Ruth to spend the rest of her pregnancy with a community of nuns in Canada. The name of the Catholic abbey is Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. As she approaches the gate, Ruth muses, “Really, Gran? You have outdone yourself this time.”
Other appealing characters populate this charming story, which has an almost fairy tale structure to it. All individuals and families are either already acquainted and connected or are soon to be woven into the lives of others in seemingly miraculous fashion. Eventually secrets are revealed, hurts and misunderstandings are healed and life goes on to pulsate with promise.
Alyce is the cousin of Ruth’s best friend Selma. She loves to dance and aspires to do so professionally. But Alyce feels duty bound to work the fishing season with her father and Uncle Gorky. Still, there may be a way to pursue her passion. And there is Dora Peters who suffers the strain of alcoholic parents, especially her father Bumpo. Prone to violence, he was incarcerated after shooting up the bathroom of the Sno-Go tavern. Nobody hurt. Dora is relieved to have him out of the picture — for now anyway. A trio of teen brothers — Hank, Sam and Jack — flee their home after their mother has taken up with a most unsavory man. Their father, whom they worshipped, had died at sea. Hank, the oldest, wonders, “How does someone go from being a decent mother and having a husband who treats her like a queen to bringing home the first mangy stray dog she finds on the street?” Good question.
Calming rays of light appear in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Moses, “the nicest parents in Birch Park.” They do not abuse alcohol. They are kind and patient with their daughters, Dumpling and Bunny, and respectful and caring to every other kid and adult in the neighborhood. Another is George, “the crinkly-faced manager” of the local Salvation Army store. Easygoing and wise, he doles out kindness and understanding in addition to used goods.
In her acknowledgments the author states: “Much of this book was written at the Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado, a place filled with ranching nuns who inspire me.” Must be an interesting ambience. Hitchcock has penned a thoughtful and finely crafted piece of fiction. A promising start for this young writer.
Check out the full Aug. 22 - Aug. 28 issue.
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