In my family, those without kids do the traveling a few days before Thanksgiving. It’s tradition! On Wednesday we converge and bounce around the kitchen each making and baking our own favorites to share. We used to follow a script, making every single dish from childhood whether they were loved or not, looking at you candied yams, because it’s tradition. Traditions are special and meaningful until they’re a chore. One year I drove 40 miles out of the way and then 40 miles back just to get date nut bread for the cream cheese sandwiches we loved as kids. There were loaves of fresh date nut bread at the bakery down the street, but if it’s not baked in a can nobody eats it.
At some point the holidays started feeling like a rerun, like we were always following other peoples traditions even though those people were us. That’s no fun. This year I’m trying my hand at corn bread stuffing and baking my favorite vegan pumpkin pie while my boyfriend makes his famous collard greens and my dad spreads cream cheese on canned bread because some traditions shouldn’t die. It does taste better from a can.
Usually I read foodish fiction in November because tradition. But The Smell Of Other People’s Houses was too evocative to resist. The sense of smell triggers powerful memories. The right smells are like a magical time machine. One whiff of real kielbasa or stuffed cabbage drops me at my grandpa’s kitchen table beside his DIY meat hole [meat hole: an aromatic hole knocked in the wall for hanging smoked meat].
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s The Smell of Other People’s Houses is not the cozy tale the cover led me to believe. It’s another well written taste of life in Alaska. Unlike Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, this one’s more bitter than sweet.
A handful of teenage characters tell their stories of growing up in 1970’s Alaska. The narrative shifts between their different points of view as their lives interweave despite very different backgrounds. Some of the girls live in Birch Park and survive on spam, church leftovers and layers of thrift clothing. Another feels her dreams of becoming a dancer slip away as she joins her father on his fishing boat for the summer per tradition. Among the most compelling characters is Ruth, sent away by a strict grandmother to have her baby in a convent.
It’s considered really bad manners to snoop and read other mariner’s charts. It’s the closest thing to a journal for men who trust no one but the sea.
Detailed slice-of-life-in-Alaska moments made this a pleasure to read despite some dark story lines. I know little about this state now let alone 40+ years ago when statehood was rather new and unwelcome by some. On paper this might sound like a bunch of after school specials mashed together. These kids navigate alcoholism, death, poverty and abuse on top of typical growing up challenges, as well as picking enough wild berries and fishing enough salmon to get through winter.
I liked these characters and how they grow through the pages. It’s a quick, substantial read that exposed me to other ways of life and I need that right now. Plus the writing is lovely. And the title so fitting. Right now I miss my grandparents and my home smells like cornbread and cinnamon.