Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Christmas Letter for My GrandChildren

Happy New Year.  This fall, Last Frontier Magazine ask me to write a homestead Christmas
piece for the Winter edition about what Christmas was like on an Alaska homestead in the fifties.  After several failed attempts to write something interesting and heartfelt, I threw everything away and wrote a letter to my grandchildren.  I share this with you as a Holiday  greeting. 

Yes, that's me by the front door.

Dear Sawyer and Molly,

            Almost sixty years ago when I was five years old, I had my first Alaskan Christmas. In fact that holiday in 1958 was the first Christmas that I remember. It was memorable for many reasons. For one, I was finally old enough to look forward to the excitement of draping a tree with garlands of popcorn and watching the presents pile up under it. I was old enough to look forward to the sound of mom singing carols, the smell of hot cinnamon rolls, and dressing up for Church pageants. But what made it really memorable was Christmas in our own log cabin in the wilds of Alaska.

            We had finished our cabin in October and moved in just in time for Halloween. It seemed like no time before snow was falling and icicles were hanging off the eaves. A whole forest of Christmas trees surrounded our cabin, and by November they were already flocked with snow. When we drove down the lane to our house on clear frosty evening, the lamps in the cabin window filled the windows with golden light that spilled out on the snow and it was as if we were living in a Christmas card. This was nothing like Christmas back in Sugar Tree Ridge, Ohio.

            My brothers went out the back door and crunched across the snowy yard to a cut a nice spruce tree that they stood in the corner of the living room.  It must have made our little cabin really crowded, but I only remember the rich smell of the evergreen forest as the tree warmed and the last of the snow melted from the boughs.  Suddenly, we heard popcorn rattling in the pan, and Amy ran for the sewing thread so we could string garlands of popcorn.  We made paper chains and cut pictures from cards and magazines for ornaments.  Finally, our tree received the one store bought decoration, foil icicles that gaily twinkled in the lantern light.

            In those days, there were no stores around for Christmas shopping and this was long before the Internet, so we only had catalogs to order presents from. And since we didn’t have much money there wasn’t much of that. Most of the Christmas presents we received were made right there on the homestead. In our family, there were no letters to Santa or pretending that a jolly fat elf was coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Every present we got came from some one we knew, some we loved, we knew loved us.

            The only Santa we believed in was a local guy that wore the red Santa suit and showed up at the Christmas carnival just before the movie started.  He arrived with ching, ching, ching, of bells and a hearty hoo hoo hoo then sat in a chair by the Christmas tree where he read our names one by one from a long sheet of paper. When our name was called, we walked up to Santa and received a gift, wrapped in green paper for boys and red for girls. On the way back to our seat, we were handed a paper lunch sack with an apple, an orange, some peanuts, and a candy cane. For some of us that was the only orange we would have all year because fresh fruit like that was rare and expensive in 1958.

            After all the kids had received their presents, we sang a few Christmas carols, and then one of the dads started the movie projector, and the lights went down. The only sound for the next hour and a half was the rustle of treat bags and our gleeful laughter for we were totally enthralled by watching a movie – a rare treat in our little frontier community with no TV or regular theater.      

            After the movie, the Walkers headed home to their homestead cabin to build up the fire and light the lantern. And even though there was no Santa, there was still magic for under our tree we found bags of nuts, nuts of all shapes and sizes still in their shells just waiting for us. We also found a fancy tin box of candy, And this was not just any candy, it was Christmas Candy, candy in looping rainbow ribbons of red, green,  and white. But, most magical of all, and still dear to my heart was a small wooden box that with a cargo so precious that each was separately wrapped in it’s own paper. These golden jewels were Mandarin oranges — what you kids now call Clementines. Today they are as common as apples, but back then we only saw them at Christmas. When we peeled one of those tiny oranges, it released the aroma of summer like a moment of sunlight had been trapped inside it. The memory of those magical mysterious fruits is so strong that their smell no longer makes me the think of summer but of Christmas.

            And so, with the spruce logs crackling in the woodstove and carols on the radio, the Walkers settled down in their cabin on that first Christmas Eve and opened gifts they’d made each other. The way I remember it we drew names, so that each person made a gift for one member of the family. Of course, Mom and Dad had something for each of us. Mom had made shirts and dresses, mittens and dolls. Dad had shaped rough lumber into wooden spoons, checkers boards, doll beds and toy barns. We all went to bed wondering how Christmas Day could be any better than Christmas Eve, but it was.  We spent the day playing with Christmas toys, eating once a year treats, and feasting with new Alaskan friends. 

            Every Christmas since that first one, we try to remember some of those traditions, and I figured out over the years that it was not all the treats, gifts, and decorations that made Christmas special; It was a family together in that cabin, sharing a great adventure and warming a winter night with our love for each other.

Merry Christmas,

Poppa Walker

Monday, December 26, 2016

Secondhand Summer: One of the best Alaska Books this Year!

Excerpt from We Alaskans section of Alaska Dispatch News, December 25, 2016

Most Memorable Alaska Books of the Year:  
by David James
"Without a doubt, this year has been exceptional for northern fiction, the best I can recall in more than a decade of reviewing.  But I'm splitting my half-dozen favorite Alaska books of 2016 evenly between fiction and nonfiction."
 David James Three fiction selections were Alaska Laundry by Brendan Jones and The North Water by Ian McGuire, and Secondhand Summer which puts me in pretty good company. Here's what David James said about Secondhand Summer.
Secondhand Summer by another first-time novelist, Dan L. Walker, also shines. This young adult novel set in 1965 follows 14-year-old Sam Barger from Ninilchik, whose mother moves him and his sister to Anchorage after their father dies. Stuck in a low-rent apartment on Government Hill, Sam hits the streets and falls in with three other troubled kids. Initial acts of mischief lead to more serious offenses. Sam finds himself caught between his conscience and a need for acceptance that prevents him from saying no when he should. The kids in this book are stricken by family problems and low incomes. Some are trying their best, some don't even know how to try. Walker explores their motivations and decisions, while their interactions drive the storyline. As with the best teen fiction, this book about growing up under difficult but not impossible circumstances will leave adult readers reflecting on their own youths.

We also Made this list!
SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS & ILLUSTRATOR OFFICIAL READING LIST — WINTER 2016/2017     WEST (Washington / Oregon / Alaska / Idaho / Montana / North Dakota / South Dakota)
 This makes me glad I'm working on the sequel. This novel explores the relationship between Sam and his older brother Joe in the context of the Vietnam War. Then during a hunting trip the brothers confront even bigger challenges. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Books for the holidays! It's all Good News!

 I love sharing good news and this morning we received some really good news.  Writing in the We Alaskans section of the Alaska Dispatch News, David James said nice things about Secondhand Summer, including.

"The big surprise is “Secondhand Summer” (Alaska Northwest Books, $12.99), a debut novel by Dan L Walker.  .  .  This well-plotted and believable story for teens will also appeal to adults and is one of the best novels I’ve read all year, northern-themed or otherwise."

 Here is the link to the full article that talks about Alaska Themed Books for Christmas.  I thought it linked well with my last blog post, so I wanted to share it.  David A. James is a freelance writer and critic who lives in Fairbanks.   Alaska-themed books for children that make superb holiday gifts

The Christmas book theme is pretty strong in the north where we have long winter nights — and days— to read.  In Anchorage there is a book fair in the Sears Mall the Friday and Saturday before Christmas, and lost of writers online are doing giveaways and promotions for their books. In far off Iceland, however, the epitome of Arctic living, books are heart of Christmas giving. A few years ago I heard about the Icelandic tradition of gifting books on Christmas Eve, which in my house would sound like, "Here's a book. Shut up and read."  But in Iceland it even has a name, the jólabókaflóð, or the Christmas Book Flood. It's called the flood because book releases are concentrated in the couple of months before Christmas.  How literary is that?!
Read more here: Iceland Revels in its Annual Christmas Book Flood

Isn't it great that a country, though small and remote, values literacy so much that reading and sharing books becomes a cornerstone of Christmas when most traditions are unhealth, expensive or totally unproductive. This makes me more committed than ever to make books part of my Christmas, Solstice, Hanukkah, Quanza, New Years, celebration.

This year my gift books came from a variety of locations. One book actually came from a bookstore, but others were purchased direct from the author, at second stores, or fundraiser silent auctions.  Gift books don't have to be new or even recently published.  One of my gifts is a fifty year old non-fiction that is a perfect match for the recipient, and that is the key to any gift. 

So, again to quote my new favorite reviewer, David James, "Head for your nearest independent bookstore and support Alaska writers by giving such volumes to the kids on your list." 

Monday, December 12, 2016

When it Comes to Gifts I say, Book 'em Danno!

I’ve been spending a lot of time with books this year with my novel being published and the need to promote it. This experience has re-invigorated my love of giving books as gifts ­— and not just my book either.   For the last few months I’ve been collecting gift books for Christmas giving, and the last few will have to be found in the next two weeks.  To be honest, not all of my books are purchased new.
Some gift book might come off of my own shelves, just the right book for someone I know well, and I don’t mind giving it up. Some books are adopted like stray cats when I stumble over a title at a yard sale or secondhand store while others I buy from authors to support my fellow writers in their efforts to be read. Sometimes books are ordered fresh and new, unopened with crisp bright jackets. The books are those title I find that must go to one particular person like when I found the book,  Princess Bride for my daughter because she loved the movie so much and later the book, As You Wish by Cary Elwes about the making of the movie for the same reason.
A book gift giving is not that easy because some people are not avid readers or have very narrow, particular reading tastes.  With these people I treat it like buying socks, everyone needs them and size is pretty easy to match, so I buy good socks like I would want, knowing that the person probably needs them.  Even if people don’t like to read much, we know reading is good for you, so buying that person a book is not a bad thing and it says, “I thought about you," which is better than buying them chocolate, which unless it is very special chocolate, says, ‘I thought about you but it was at the last minute”.  Which is better, buying them candy, which they will eat but is bad for them or buying a book, which is good for them but they won’t read?
Besides, most people will read something even if it is only a book of poetry or jokes for reading on the throne — Yes, there are books published specifically for toilet reading.
Some of my friends are easy to buy for because they have a strong interest like horses, tie-flying or travel.  A football fan of mine is getting, Joe Buck’s memoir, Lucky Bastard, about working as a sports announcer. Others are easy to buy for because they are veracious readers in a variety of genre, or I know an author or book type they would enjoy. Teachers are easy to buy for because they love books for their classroom, and e-book readers can get a easy to spend gift card, easy to use but not so personal as book one picks himself.
Sometimes books are a nice surprise that leads the reader to a new place, for example, I once received as a gift, a copy of Reverence for Wood by Eric Sloan. This carefully written and wonderfully illustrated book of early American technology from America’s farmland is a joy to the eye and ear.  It also led me to Sloan’s other work of a similar nature.
Old books have a special place of their own, be they valuable antiques like a two hundred year old bible or first edition Gone With the Wind, but most old books are just wonderful insights or artist marvels.  My leather-bound book of Kipling’s poetry has the most supple leather jacket that one wants to carry it in hand for a whole day, and The Art of Skiing (copyright 1933) that my daughter-in-law gave me is a wonderful visit to the early days of skiing as a family sport. It isn’t the value or the author that counts, it is the connection to the reader that the right book can make.

So next week, or the week after for you last minute shoppers, stop by the old book merchant or secondhand store and see if you can find a book for some one you care enough to give a gift to.  Who wouldn’t benefit from a little more reading?