Book review: In series’ final installment, author Dan Walker’s story accents the personal over the political

“The One-Man Iris Davis Fan Club”

By Dan L. Walker; Pen & Primer, 2023; 224 pages; $14.99.

“If you paid any attention in biology class, you know how I got Iris pregnant,” Sam Barger tells us in the opening line of Dan L. Walker’s latest novel, “so all that’s left to tell you is where, when, and what came after because that’s the real story.”

Every so often a book begins with a single sentence that summarizes all that’s to come, and this is one of those cases. “The One-Man Iris Davis Fan Club” is the third installment in Walker’s young-adult series about Sam’s mishap-riddled life, and this time out there’s a teen pregnancy. A character readers have followed since junior high is going to have to grow up.

Walker first introduced us to the Bargers in “Secondhand Summer,” published in 2016. Set in 1965, it follows 14-year-old Sam’s troubled path after his family moves to Anchorage from Ninilchik following his father’s unexpected death. There Sam and his older brother Joe, unaccustomed to urban realities, fall in with other kids from the wrong side of the tracks and don’t quite manage to stay out of trouble.

2021′s “Coming Home,” the sequel, takes place in 1968. Joe returns injured from Vietnam, a war Sam is increasingly and vocally opposed to. Much as it did to the country as a whole, the war divides the Bargers, and the book shows how the conflict tore the nation and its families apart.

A key character in “Coming Home” is Iris Davis, a committed pacifist and a bit of tomboy, whom Sam falls in teenage love with. Davis, of course, is the pregnant title character in the new book, and her condition forces Sam to turn his attention to his immediate situation. If the last book was overtly political, in this one the focus is very personal to Sam’s inner life.


The story opens with the fateful night. Sam is out of high school and set to spend the summer fishing. Iris, a year behind him and now a former girlfriend, has a fateful encounter with Sam prior to his departure for work, and the die is cast.

Sam comes home in August with a nest egg, only to learn of Iris’s pregnancy, and the story moves from there. Sam is intent on doing the right thing, but Iris’s family, and especially her father, want nothing to do with him.

Even as Sam reaches out to Iris, she’s being drawn away from him. In those days of illegal abortions and a level of shaming that has since diminished somewhat, Iris’s family wants her hidden from all she knows while she carries out her pregnancy. So they send her to stay with family in the Lower 48.

Intent on holding up his end of the deal, and still in love with Iris, Sam flies to Seattle and sets out for Walla Walla, Washington, where Iris is reportedly living with an aunt. What follows in the next section of the book is a bit of the classic American road trip novel. By bus and by thumb Sam heads first across Washington state, then down into Oregon, and ultimately to New Mexico and Utah, chasing Iris as her father moves her from one locale to the next in order to keep Sam from reaching her.

Along the way, Sam meets people both good and bad. Iris’s aunt helps him as best she can without betraying her family. Hitchhiking lands him in trouble. Police encounters keep him on his toes. In a remote corner of Oregon, he’s taken in by Harold and Betsy, owners of a garage and diner along the dusty highway in the high desert. There Sam finds work, solace, and advice on handling his dilemma from Harold and a saucy waitress named Cathy.

[Book review: Author Tommy Orange returns to the Red Feather boys, both backward and forward in time]

The political themes that were prevalent in the previous two novels are found here as well, although they’re more subdued than in “Coming Home.” This book is set in 1969. Vietnam is still raging and Sam faces the possibility of being drafted. But for an 18-year-old with a pregnant girlfriend, those have become secondary issues. Walker does a good job of showing how the world can intrude on people’s lives, and also how people’s immediate needs can push broader realities aside. Sam periodically stresses over his near-term future and what it will take to avoid being caught up in the war, but mostly he is thinking about reclaiming Iris and preparing for fatherhood.

Late in the novel, the plot takes a somewhat unanticipated twist that turns it into more than a story about teenage pregnancy. The emphasis shifts to the treatment of young women by men, the fate that can befall them as a result, and the systems that were then in place for pregnant girls, systems that often treated them as irretrievably fallen while the males involved continued with their lives as normal. In post-Roe America, when women are having their rights stripped away by increasing authoritarianism, it offers a grim sense of what might return. So perhaps this book carries a political message as well, though in a more subtle fashion than its predecessor.

Walker states in his acknowledgments at the outset that this will be the final book in his series about Sam Barger, and at the end of the story, Sam looks back from adulthood. Things tie up a bit more handily than they do at the close of each of the previous novels. And while most of this volume takes place outside of Alaska, the books in aggregate tell a story arc that’s based out of 1960s Anchorage, a time and place rarely mentioned in Alaska fiction. Walker, who came of age in that city during those years, is helping to place Alaska’s largest city on a literary map that’s largely ignored it. 1970s Anchorage, with the madness of the pipeline, would be even more interesting than the 1960s. If Walker changes his mind, the adult Sam Barger could still have some life left in him.

[With a propulsive style, Alaska author Paul Greci hopes to keep reluctant young-adult readers engaged]

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