By 1957 Ray Bradbury had established himself as a premier science-fiction writer.  The success of The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) had seemingly launched his career in that direction.  But in 1957 Bradbury released the novel Dandelion Wine, an homage to youth, innocence, and belief, whose only fantastical elements are strictly in the minds of the young protagonist and his friends.

Dandelion Wine is a semi-autobiographical novel set in Green Town, Illinois, a loosely veiled mask for Waukegon, where Bradbury was born.  It centers around the summer exploits of Douglas Spaulding, a twelve-year old with the energy of a lightning bolt.  In 1974, Bradbury wrote the essay “Just This Side of Byzantium,” which became an introduction for new editions of the book.  In the essay he reveals that Doug is based on himself, and Tom, Doug’s ten-year old brother, is based on Bradbury’s brother, and that John Huff, one of Doug’s best friends, was a real person (named John Huff).

The book takes place during the summer of 1928.  The summer truly begins for Doug while picking wild grapes with his father and brother.  During the course of their outing, Doug feels “a vast tidal wave lift up behind the forest.”  When it crashes, Douglas Spaulding realizes for the first time that he is alive.

The plot of the novel isn’t entirely linear from that point on, but this isn’t a detriment.  At times the book seems more like a collection of interrelated stories than one cohesive novel, and indeed, many chapters were previously published as short stories.  Each chapter (or group of chapters) deals with the various goings-on of the people of Green Town.  There’s Leo Auffmann, happily married father of six, who builds a happiness machine with unforeseen consequences.  There’s old Mrs. Bentley, who realizes what it means to be old.  There’s the heartbreaking love between Helen Loomis, 95, and Bill Forrester, 31.  There’s old Colonel Freeleigh, the human time machine.  There’s Lavinia Nebbs and the Lonely One.  There’s Miss Fern, Miss Roberta, and the Green Machine.  All the happenings of summer, to which Doug is a proud and grateful witness.

For those that dislike too much happiness, Bradbury balances all this joy with an appropriate amount of sadness.  After all, a novel about life could not be complete if it did not also address death.  While Doug gains awareness of his life, he also loses things which have made that life beautiful.  Friends move away, loved ones die.  Doug even sees the strangled corpse of a woman, latest victim to the town menace, the Lonely One.  These events build up, and by the end of the book, Doug has a realization equal to his life-affirming epiphany in the beginning.  Douglas Spaulding, 12 years old, will someday have to die, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

Style-wise, Bradbury couldn’t have written a more fitting book, in terms of relating the content to the theme.  Doug is alive, for the first time, for a limited amount of time, and because he knows it he never wants to take that for granted again.  He has a nickel tablet and a yellow Ticonderoga pencil with which he keeps meticulous record of his summer.  Because of this, Bradbury’s always keen eye for detail shines forth like the light from a firefly lamp.  He can masterfully set up a scene:

“He looked out at the yellow sunlight on the concrete and on the green awnings and shining on the gold letters of the window signs across the street, and he looked on the calendar on the wall….  The warm air spread under the sighing fans over his head.  A number of women laughed by the open door and were gone through his vision, which was focused beyond them at the town itself and the high courthouse clock.”

Or he can describe something like the Green Machine in painfully beautiful simile:

“It glided.  It whispered, an ocean breeze.  Delicate as maple leaves, fresher than creek water, it purred with the majesty of cats prowling the noontide….  The machine, with a rubber tread, soft, shrewd, whipped up their scalded white sidewalk, whirred to the lowest porch step, twirled, stopped.”

He even made my mouth water:

” ‘Green Dusk for Dreaming Brand Pure Northern Air,‘ he read. ‘Derived from the atmosphere of the white Arctic in the spring of 1900, and mixed with the wind from the upper Hudson Valley in the month of April, 1910, and containing particles of dust seen shining in the sunset of one day in the meadows around Grinnell, Iowa, when a cool air rose to be captured from a lake and a little creek and a natural spring.'”

Throughout the book, the prose never relaxes its grip on detail and imagery.  And when combined with the joys of summer and the heartbreaks of life, seen through the eyes of a boy who wants so badly for things to be beautiful and perfect, but who realizes that sometimes life is beyond his control, you have a novel about growing up that never seems contrived, that never panders to cuteness or gimmick.  You have a novel that resonates long after you put it down.  If you haven’t experienced summer yet, you must pick up this book.


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