Seward author Dan Walker’s early life from the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage provided rich source material

This is part of Alaska Authors, an occasional series about authors and other literary figures with ties to the 49th state.

An enduring trope in Alaska literature is the individual heading into the wilds and being forged through an encounter with the land. It’s a theme Dan Walker upended when he published his debut novel, “Secondhand Summer,” in 2016. It opens shortly after its main character, Sam Barger, moves with his recently widowed mother and his brother Joe from a remote homestead to Anchorage in 1965.

“This kid is coming from the ‘wilderness’ to the city, and there’s still adventure there,” Walker said of that story, which follows the ups and downs of Sam’s first year in Anchorage.

It’s a path Walker himself took as a child, when his father’s unexpected death forced his mother to move with her seven children from their Kenai Peninsula home into cramped quarters in Anchorage’s oldest neighborhood. “We moved from a cabin in the woods to a two-bedroom apartment on Government Hill,” Walker said, describing it as “a total immersion into crowded urban life.”

“Secondhand Summer,” and its follow-up, “Coming Home,” set three years later, evoke that time in Anchorage and America during a decade when both were undergoing tremendous changes. It’s here that Sam attempts to find his way. Walker said some of the scrapes Sam lands in are based on things that happened to him and his siblings during that decade. “Being younger, I got to watch all my older brothers and sisters screw up and make mistakes, and I learned a lot from that.”

Walker knows kids that age well. For most of his career, he was a middle school teacher in Seward, where he still lives with his wife, Madelyn. He said people cringe when he tells them what age group he taught, but for him, watching students “dance back and forth between being wide-eyed little kids and being mature, sophisticated, semi-adults” was personally rewarding.

“There’s that opportunity to see a lot of growth,” he said. “At that age, they’re so cantankerous that a lot of people don’t like them. So to have someone that does like them, they really like that.”


Walker became a full-time writer after retiring, but he came to Alaska as a very young child in 1958. His parents were farmers from southern Ohio whose fortunes were demolished by an outbreak of hog cholera. Unable to sustain their farm, they sold everything and drove north.

“I’m awestruck by the courage it took to pack six kids and maybe the pocketful of cash you got from your farm auction, and head off into the complete unknown,” Walker said. Information on Alaska was limited then, his father had no job awaiting him, and his parents weren’t even sure where they would settle.

After finding land in Happy Valley on the Kenai, the couple began building their homestead from scratch, a story Walker was able to bring to print in his 2018 nonfiction book “Letters from Happy Valley,” drawn from letters his parents wrote home during their early years in Alaska.

“My parents had beautiful language and they told this lovely story,” Walker said of the letters, found decades after they had been written in a shoebox his grandmother had stored them in. They wrote at least once a week, and their stories provide the primary narrative for a memoir Walker couldn’t have written without them. “I was so young I couldn’t remember all the pieces. So it was really great to have my parents impart all these details.”

Walker described his early childhood as “idyllic,” with woods to play in, plenty of chores, and parents who read to their children every night, instilling a love for literature he’s never lost. His mom, he said, “would read us Dickens and dad read us ‘Tarzan of the Apes.’” He added, “Later I figured out that we were really poor back then, but I didn’t know it.”

Walker was 11 when his dad died suddenly from a heart attack in 1965, and his mom was forced to move with her children to Anchorage. “Secondhand Summer” is based on his experiences learning to be a kid in the city, he said. His mom had to work to feed her children, “and I was unsupervised and kind of running amok.”

While times were difficult at first, his mother found a good job with a solid income fairly quickly.

“My mom’s story is a real impressive story,” he said. “She worked herself up from a homesteader’s wife who had seven kids to being an executive in the hotel industry.”

As with America, Anchorage was undergoing convulsions at the time, as civil rights struggles and the Vietnam War divided families, while recovery from the Good Friday Earthquake was sped along by the arrival of the oil industry, about to transform the small city into a boomtown. It’s amidst this societal upheaval that Walker places his characters, caught on the wrong side of the tracks, trying and often failing to stay out of trouble.

Walker said he avoided trouble by holding steady employment from the age of 13, and by 16, “I had a car to drive and cash in my pocket.” He turned against the war early on and embraced civil rights even as he struggled to comprehend the racial divides in his high school. It’s material that finds its way into his novels, especially the war, which his brother Bill volunteered for.

Walker’s brother “had terrible life-changing experiences over there and suffered from that all his life,” Walker said. This provided the theme for Walker’s second novel, “Back Home.” In it, Sam’s older brother Joe returns physically and mentally wounded from a war he had enthusiastically joined. “The real core of who (Joe) is in the story is my brother Bill.”

[Book review: ‘Hardship Alaska’ is a unique and valuable coming-of-age story]

While Walker wasn’t initially a writer, he occupied himself as a child by making up stories. Later, as a teacher, he had his students learn English by writing more than by focusing on the rules of the language. “So writing became a very big part of my teaching,” he said.

Walker began writing for publication late in his teaching career, and some pieces found a home in the old We Alaskans section of the ADN.

“I got into writing short essays and short stories and that sort of thing,” he said. “It became part of my recreation and my mental release, and then finally one summer I said, I’m going to sit down and write this story that became ‘Secondhand Summer.’”

Of writing, he said, “I find it pretty easy to rough draft a story. Once it starts flowing, it just goes. It’s the fixing it and making it work that is harder for me.” While “Secondhand Summer” took many years to finish, he now writes routinely. He maintains a blog, Bear Lake Journal, has a third book about Sam Barger, “The One Man Iris Davis Fan Club,” about to be published, and two unrelated novels in the works.

Walker didn’t set out to write a series of books about Sam, he said. “The stories just developed.”

Much like his blog posts and other writings, they’re a chronicle of continuing adventure. “You’re taking a piece of these characters’ lives and you’re telling it,” he said, and “unless you tell it all the way to their deaths, there’s always more story.”

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at