A contender for the Yoto Carnegie Medal 2022, Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, springs from the longlist with its eye-catching title. Set in the American West, it’s a series of interlocking teen stories that roam from Alaska to Colorado. Characters and events intersect throughout, often oblivious of their roles in each other’s tales. Only the reader sees the big picture, and the motifs of wildfire, tainted priesthood, and a missing child. Likely the first time you’ve ever encountered amnesiac shellfish poisoning as a plot device, it’s an inventive portrayal of young small town life.
A map at the front of the book lays out the various destinations, characters and journeys undertaken, kicking off in Alaska, a place of big mountains, big skies and big belt buckles. We meet teenage Gina, resentfully pond skating with Poppy, the young daughter of her dad’s new girlfriend. It’s minus twenty on the ice, in stark contrast to the ‘smouldering briquettes of anger,’ Gina can feel inside her rib cage.
Grieving for her dead mother, and furious with her father for moving on, Gina is about to have a crisis, to be witnessed by Poppy, who has been clutching the hand of an invisible, imaginary friend since the moment she climbed in the sled. Although we meet Poppy’s sister in Colorado in the next story, it’s many miles down the track before we realise why the little girl is in need of a make-believe companion.
As the drama rolls on and the characters and plots enmesh, life becomes darker. The flames of Gina’s anger in the first tale have morphed into real-life wildfire, and the crackle of radio wildfire warnings accompanies the reader.
In this snapshot of Americana, Hitchcock shows us the sometimes suffocating nature of traditional community values and the kids with their struggles like ‘…an ingrown toenail…pressing into you, silently, painfully, although nobody ever knew it was there.’
A riveting read best suited to older teens.
Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock is published by Ember, 224 pages.