Sunday, February 07, 2016


When I learned that Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's The Smell of Other People's Houses has Native characters in it, the title took on a dark connotation. Central to European and US racism towards Native peoples was their characterization of Native peoples as primitive, dirty, and in need of "civilizing."  Thanks to a friend who was at the American Library Association's Midwinter meeting last month, I was able to read an advance reader's copy of it.

Most of Hitchcock's story takes place in Fairbanks in 1970. Here's the synopsis:

In Alaska, 1970, being a teenager here isn’t like being a teenager anywhere else. This deeply moving and authentic debut is for fans of Rainbow Rowell, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, and Benjamin Alire Saenz. Intertwining stories of love, tragedy, wild luck, and salvation on the edge of America’s Last Frontier introduce a writer of rare talent.
Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck strikes. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance, with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.
Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This unforgettable book is about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed. 

The story is told in alternating chapters, by Ruth, Dora, Alyce, and Hank. This review is primarily about Dora.

The book starts out with Ruth. Her little sister is named Lily. They live with their grandmother. I believe they are white. Nothing in the story tells me they are not white. As the story begins, Ruth and her friend Selma, and Lily and her friend Bunny (Lily and Bunny are 11 years old) are about to sit down to eat together. Bunny gets to talking about the fish camp her family goes to. Lily asks Gran why they don't have a fish camp, and gran says "because we aren't native."

To that, Bunny says (on page 17 of the ARC):
"I'm not native, I'm Athabascan." 
Clearly, she objects to being called native. Ruth and Selma laugh at her. Lily (Ruth's little sister) responds:
"What's so funny? She is Athabascan," says Lily. "Natives are the people like Dora's mom, the ones who hang out all day at the bar--they're too drunk to even bother fishing."
Remember--Lily is eleven years old, but she apparently holds some rather stereotypical ideas about Native people. Maybe because she's eleven, we're meant to excuse her remark.

Later on that page we learn a little more, from Ruth:
Fish camps are pretty much handed down from family to family, but maybe Gran shouldn't have lumped all Alaska Natives together. It didn't seem to make Bunny very happy. Especially because Bunny and Dumpling actually have the nicest parents in Birch Park. 
Are there tensions in Alaska between different Alaska Native groups that would cause Bunny to be upset that gran would use "native" to describe her and her family? Are her objections specific to the alcoholism of Dora's mother? Are we to understand that "natives" in Alaska are more likely to be alcoholic than Athabascans? From Dora, we learn that most people in Fairbanks "lump all native people together" and that she (Dora) is Eskimo or Inupiat, while Dumpling is Athabascan, or Indian (p. 27-28).

As the synopsis indicates, Dora is one of the main characters in the story. Her escape is from her own home. Her dad, we read, drinks, too. But there's more: her dad sexually abuses her, and her mother knows about it. Near the end of the story, he beats up her mother and threatens to shoot Dora. By then, Dora has been living next door with Bunny and Dumpling's family for awhile.

When Dora wins some money, her mother pesters her for it so she can buy more beer. When her dad gets out of jail for shooting up the bar, he wants her money, too.

There are characters in the story that might be Eskimo or Inupiat (not sure what Dora's preferred term is). George, the old guy who works at Goodwill, knew Dora's great grandparents, but I can't tell if he's Eskimo/Inupiat or not. Nick, the bartender with nice teeth might be, too. Dora's mom dated him for awhile. If these two men are Eskimo/Inupiat, that would be cool, because they're likeable. But--we don't know.

And then there's Dora's mom's friends, Paula and Annette. Paula has a beaded wallet, so maybe she's Eskimo/Inupiat. The three woman are loud and drink together, a lot. Paula seems nice enough but the vibe I get of them is not good. In that scene in which Dora's father threatens to shoot her, Paula and Annette came running out of the house, abandoning Dora's mom.

The contrast between the Bunny and Dumpling's Athabascan family and Dora's Eskimo or Inupiat family, is striking. In the Athabascan home, Dora feels safe and cared for. Dumpling's family may be shown that way so that we'd have more than one image of Native peoples, but I wish that we were given more information about Dora's parents so that we might understand them as more than the stereotypical drunken and violent Indians. Why do they throw pictures across the room, cracking the glass and putting them back on the wall, with that cracked glass? What is the backstory on them? Without it, I think this story confirms troubling stereotypes. I'm also unsettled by the sexual abuse. Sexual abuse of Native women is rampant, and while there's no doubt that incest is part of that, I wish that wasn't part of Dora's story.

I'd also like to know more about Indigenous peoples of Alaska. Hitchcock gestures to complexities in terms used but I'm reading and re-reading those passages trying to make sense of it. Due out in 2016 from Random House, I'm marking this as not recommended.

Update, Feb 9 2016:

My social media feeds yesterday carried news about a research study comparing alcohol use across Native and White populations:

The researchers analyzed data from a survey of more than 4,000 Native Americans and 170,000 whites between 2009 and 2013. Called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the survey was administered by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The UA study also used another nationally representative survey, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System administered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to measure how often Native Americans and whites engaged in excessive drinking in the past month. Again, findings for the two groups were comparable.
About 17 percent of both Native Americans and whites were found to be binge drinkers, and about 8 percent of both groups were heavy drinkers. Binge drinking was defined as five or more drinks on one to four days in the past month. Heavy drinking was five or more drinks on five or more days in the past month. Sixty percent of Native Americans reported no alcohol use in the past month, compared to 43 percent of whites.
“Of course, debunking a stereotype doesn’t mean that alcohol problems don’t exist,” Dr. Cunningham said. “All major U.S. racial and ethnic groups face problems due to alcohol abuse, and alcohol use within those groups can vary with geographic location, age and gender.
“But falsely stereotyping a group regarding alcohol can have its own unique consequences. For example, some employers might be reluctant to hire individuals from a group that has been stereotyped regarding alcohol. Patients from such a group, possibly wanting to avoid embarrassment, may be reluctant to discuss alcohol-related problems with their doctors,” he said.

I think it was being shared in Native networks because we are keenly aware of the stereotype which is, I believe, reflected in Hitchcock's story. 


Ann Bennett said...

I had stopped reading fiction for a good portion of my life. One reason was information was not authentic. I'm reaching the point where unless people are immersed in a culture, maybe they should think long and hard before they write about it. Stereotypes are hard on people and especially children.

I recognize the alcohol motif as being very similar to the moonshine motif of the South. It always grates on me. I went to a conference where a New York agent was present, and I listened to quasi Southerners with their moonshine stories. I've listened to tales from people who are much younger than me about "chain gangs" which were outlawed before my memory began.

I started following you because I had considered writing stories I had been told as a child. They were never labeled culturally.

Your posts in addition to the comments have been a big eye opener for me. Maybe it is because I grew up in a region of poverty. It takes incredible character to survive difficult life circumstances. Alcohol is abused as an escape by some but not by all or most. Why should an entire group of people be smeared with a repetitive meme. Isn't there more depth in their lives that can be explored.

My grandfather was a moonshiner. He never drank. He caught fish and sold them in a town square and worked very hard to make a living. There was so much more to the man. And yes he was flawed. Aren't we all?

Debby Dahl Edwardson said...

" I wish that we were given more information about Dora's parents so that we might understand them as more than the stereotypical drunken and violent Indians"

This makes me think of Chimimanda Adichie, in her brilliant Ted Talk: "the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete."

It would be important to get a sense of the trauma, especially the historical trauma, that has shaped characters' lives, giving the reader a more well-rounded picture of why these characters do the things they do. This is especially important in books written for young people, especially books written by those of us who are white about non-white peoples. Otherwise what we write just feeds into the dominant stereotypes.

mallard said...

Sadly, your review is the only thing feeding into dominant stereotypes. If you'd read this book in its entirety, you would have realized that what THE SMELL OF OTHER PEOPLE'S HOUSES does is dispel these stereotypes. It seems you have missed the point entirely. Did you tell Sherman Alexie that PART TIME INDIAN, feeds into dominant stereotypes? When people write about their communities and cultures, how can someone outside of that community and culture, like yourself, honestly feel that you have the right to criticize? Did you live in Alaska? Are you familiar with the 251 tribes that exist there? By your own admission, it appears you know very little about AK Natives, and yet, you are lumping them all into one category. Even the name of your website, American Indians in Children's literature, does not speak to the Alaska Native experience. We are not "American Indians." You are doing the very thing you say others should not do. And by the way, Dora wishes that wasn't part of her story as well. Because Dora is a real person. There are hundreds of Doras in AK and they are tired of the silence that perpetuates abuse. Perhaps you've never met one of us. But we are speaking out. We are even more tired of people like you saying our stories shouldn't be addressed. Please, don't speak for us, we have our own writers who are printing books and performing plays.
This author was the voice of Independent Native news (produced in AK) for many years and certainly isn't someone that makes these kinds of generalizations about the very people that she represented as a reporter, and a multi generational Alaskan. Did you even read her bio? Her website might shed some light and give your readers knowledge and context. If you really are concerned about accuracy in literature this is a book that should be embraced, as Alaskans have, calling it "The Alaskan version of The House on Mango Street." -Fireside Books, Palmer Alaska

Anonymous said...

mallard, I am so glad to read your comments on here questioning Debbie Reese's knowledge of the Alaska Native experience. While I have largely agreed with her content on AICL, I have long wondered about too much stock being put in her opinion about all indigenous experiences. Clearly the author of THE SMELL OF OTHER PEOPLE'S HOUSES knows her stuff, and knows MORE about the Alaska Native experience than does Reese. Is it really so unbelievable that 11-year-old Lily would differentiate between Athabascans and Natives and use that terminology? It seems wholly natural to me, that Lily would have learned and mimicked that information from adults. This continues an unfortunate trend where I am losing some of my trust in Reese's reviews.

Anonymous said...

Wow. It seems that you found no real issue but rather the need to say something negative. As a Gwich'in Athabascan, I can only laugh and shake my head at this incredulous assessment of a novel written by one of our own. It was read by both me and Inupiaq journalist Nellie Moore before publication so you have also criticized our vetting of the story.

Your outside perspective seems to have kept you from understanding even the smallest hint at the cultural identity of these characters. Obviously George, who you couldn't tell was native or not, was hunting seals at one point. Only Alaska natives can hunt seals. That's good writing without beating the reader over the head. Perhaps you just don't know enough about Alaska culture? Your ignorance is not the writer's fault. Readers who truly want to learn about the real Alaska will get much from this book, as could you, Debbie if you were not so quick to jump to false conclusions.

Ms. Hitchcock writes from her own experience. But she has long understood the politics of this region. Without her reporting we might have lost some valuable land to the federal government, orchestrated by a Native Corporation and against the wishes of the tribes in the region. She actually reported on this for NPR, (even quoting Gwich'in speakers in their own language) and helped to stop an egregious move.

Using your own standard, I must say, I cannot recommend readers to your blog. I can however, recommend they read The Smell of Other People's Houses.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for everyone -- Debbie & the other commenters -- for your thoughts on this book. It makes me examine the content more closely with heightened awareness of the complexities of any single book.

Anonymous said...

Now it's a Morris finalist! Luckily for teens and readers everywhere, not everyone has been hoodwinked by Reese's "Not Recommended" review. We can come to our own conclusions about the Alaskan Native and Athabascan experience rather than be schooled by a member of the Nambé Pueblo nation.

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous at 10:15 AM on December 5:

It is not the first, nor will it be the last, book to get shortlisted --- or to win --- an award.

You find my critique unpersuasive. Others have studied it and come away with a different view of it. You didn't. Indeed, your use of "hoodwinked" and "schooled" reflects poorly on you.