I had had Alaska writer Dan Walker’s YA novel SECONDHAND SUMMER on my list for a long time, and two weeks ago finally had the chance to dive in.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Walker’s book, geared for middle school readers (but still immensely enjoyable for adults), follows 14-year-old Sam’s move to Anchorage from the small fishing community of Ninilchik after his father dies of a heart attack.
The family, consisting of his mother, an older brother who moves out soon after they arrive in Anchorage, and an older sister, takes up residence in a ratty apartment on Government Hill, a poorer section of town. It’s 1965, a year after the big earthquake that destroyed a good section of downtown Anchorage, and it’s summer, the daylight stretching out so long that it almost clashes with the night.
The story is earthy and simple, filled with middle-school boy jokes, long afternoons building a clubhouse, bicycle riding and getting into minor trouble, one of these instances involving older boys and a knife.
Mostly, though, it’s a coming-of-age story of a boy whose world abruptly changes when his father dies, and whose world is about to abruptly change again when he hits puberty. This is what makes SECONDHAND SUMMER so bittersweet and yet so enjoyable for adult readers, this knowledge of the change to come, this reminder of how short childhood really is. We savor this last stretch of boyhood along with Sam, all the while reminiscing of the wonders and innocence of our own childhoods.
At places, I wish Walker had added a touch more complexity to the story. Yes, this is a novel aimed at middle schoolers. Yet it is so much more, and while it does flirt with rough and tough topics, these scenes resolve just a tad too easily. I wanted a bit more grit, a bit more bite. I wanted to feel these tough scenes a little more. I wanted them to resonate with a stronger focus, dig a little deeper into uncomfortable areas.
But that is a small gripe, and perhaps a personal one at that. As I read, I felt a growing endearment toward Sam and his best friend Billy, and the writing also captured my heart, evoking such smooth, such quiet images. Walker is at his best when describing the Alaskan landscape, and many passages were so lyrical that I had to stop and read them again. Here’s one such scene from the beginning, before the family leaves Ninilchik for Anchorage:
Perhaps it was the purity of a sleeping forest in the winter, or maybe it was just the safe, warm feeling of the cabin itself with its memory of Dad’s laugh and the taste of his cream and sugar coffee. For whatever reason, the homestead was a good place to be, especially for a guy like me. Then I knew that in this, my first time in the woods alone, long before the end of winter’s shadow, I had started a new part of my life.
I highly recommend Dan Walker’s SECONDHAND SUMMER for adults wishing to escape to a simpler time, and to all middle and early high school students.