By: Claire Rudolph Murphy
The Smell of Other People’s Houses
By Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, 2016, Wendy Lamb Books, Random House
"If the seasons bleed into each other like a watercolor painting, it means not enough berries to the last the winter, not enough wood chopped for the stove, not enough meat in the freezer. One year winter came so fast and so hard, the leaves on the birch trees didn't even have time to turn yellow and fall off; they froze solid green on the branches."
Why did you pick this book?
Because of the beautiful writing in the above excerpt and its diverse setting and cast of characters. But in full disclosure, also because Bonnie-Sue is an alum of our MFAC program and began this story while at Hamline. Check out the acknowledgements for the names of many Hamline writers, including her thesis advisor Kelly Easton. I also lived in Alaska for twenty-four years, the setting of the story. But I would not have reviewed her story if I were not impressed with Bonnie-Sue’s ability to authentically present a story from four different points of view, four different cultural backgrounds, native and non-native. This is her first novel, inspired by her family’s four generations living in Alaska and her years working as a journalist with Alaska Public Radio and as host and producer of “Independent Native News," a daily newscast focusing on Alaska Natives, American Indians, and Canada’s First Nations. These credentials helped her meet the challenges of such a complex, culturally diverse book.
I need to note that I know Bonnie-Sue well, have read her blog posts and interviews for the launch of this book and had an in-depth phone conversion with her two weeks ago.
What made you keep reading?
The evocative writing featuring riveting characters in a place I dearly love. But I believe the characters will speak to readers who know nothing about Alaska, too. The book is beautifully presented with wood engravings by Rebecca Poulson opening every chapter and poems by Alaskan writers at the beginning of the four seasonal sections. It also was buoyed by the sense of hope that runs through the characters’ stories, in spite of the challenging things they face, such as teen pregnancy, alcoholism, abuse, and parental neglect.
Though I lived in Alaska many years and learned a great deal about the many native cultures, I didn’t realize how culture is not stagnant and set in stone, but rather evolves through relationships between friends of different cultures. It often starts with kids and teens who experience race and culture as fluid and open, as opposed to a far number of adults.
Is there an element of craft that you thought the author utilized particularly well?
Bonnie-Sue’s sensory descriptions are so vivid, especially the smells. She has gotten some pushback about the book title could be perceived as negative and stereotypical against native culture. Bonnie-Sue explains that It has nothing to do with Alaska Natives.
And I did not perceive it that way. I believe that all houses have a smell - sometimes unpleasant, and often beautiful, no matter what economic level, or cultural setting. The scent of cedar trees she uses in the opening chapter from Ruth’s perspective actually came from her own teenage boyfriend’s home in Anchorage. In one of her blog posts, Bonnie-Sue describes how the title came from a prompt that a fellow writer gave her as they wrote together one afternoon.
Because in this time of such racial and cultural divisions in America, the diverse characters in Bonnie-Sue’s novel are fully fleshed out people - white, Athabascan Indian, Inupiaq Eskimo and of mixed or unknown race. Race is noted at times, but more importantly is how they reach out to each other across those boundaries and become like family to each other. As Bonnie-Sue notes, “There are dysfunctional families and there are functional families in Alaska, regardless of race.” Bonnie-Sue was brave enough to write this story, even though some have questioned her right to do this, even though she and her friends and family have lived many of the experiences in this book. Bonnie-Sue wanted to get it right for Alaskans and early support for the book has been overwhelmingly positive.
Where did you see your own experiences in this book?
While reading this book, the memories of my years in Alaska came flooding back in such a powerful way, that I often had to put it down and just sit with my thoughts. I am an unusual reviewer because I know firsthand the places she writes about: the housing project in Fairbanks, the Catholic convent, the commercial fishing boat in Southeast Alaska. Those places rang true, along with her characterizations of the cultures.
Readers in search of a beautifully written book about teens of different cultural backgrounds in a unique setting. Also writers in search of how to write about diverse characters with respect and authenticity, a challenge I believe all of us writers face today.
One of the native characters faces sexual abuse. Bonnie-Sue explains, “I would never stereotype because I just don't have a one sided view of any of these issues. But I don't believe silence will ever change anything either, it just perpetuates it.” When Bonnie-Sue was struggling with how to tell Dora’s story of abuse, a group of Alaska Native girls spoke out about the abuse in their village. Their courage inspired Bonnie-Sue to keep writing. As did the play “Our Voices Will Be Heard,” which premiered recently at the Perseverance Theater in Juneau, about girls speaking out against sexual abuse. “I hope anyone who is offended by the idea that our stories are “stereotyping,” will be equally offended by the high rates of abuse, alcoholism and suicide.”
An in-depth review of Bonnie-Sue’s book can be found on the blog of Alaskan writer and librarian Ann Dixon. Check it out at: http://www.kidlitnorth.
This topic of writing diverse characters is so challenging that I have continued my discussion in tomorrow’s post on the Storyteller’s Inkpot. Along with my thoughts, it features more insights from Bonnie-Sue and Debby Dahl Edwardson, author of the National Book award honor book, the novel My Name is Not Easy. See: http://thestorytellersinkpot.blogspot.com
Please join in. We need many voices to keep us moving forward.