Thursday, August 18, 2016

Drinking Dandelion Wine

Ray Bradbury was a wizard with words, casting spells left and right, mesmerizing the readers of his 27 novels and 600 short stories. He sometimes wrote about hypnotists, magicians, and soothsayers, but the real wizardry happened in the elixir of his words.

Nowhere is the magic more potent than his 1957 book Dandelion Wine, which the cover of my 1979 Bantam Books edition calls “The captivating novel of a boy’s magical summer.” Dandelion Wine is not quite a novel, neither is it a traditional collection of short stories; it is a fever dream of memory, a jump-cut film of golden memories, a warm bath of nostalgia that, no matter how long you sit in the tub water, never grows chill. Dandelion Wine centers around two brothers, Doug and Tom Spaulding, as they roam carefree across the “magical summer” of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, based on Bradbury’s childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois. (Bradbury often returned to Green Town, most notably in Something Wicked This Way Comes and Farewell Summer.)

Though I could fault Mr. Bradbury for packing a few too many “life lessons” into just one summer, and for making 12-year-old Douglas too wise beyond his years, it’s probably best to set those aside and just go with the flow of the book. And flow it does, from golden vignette to golden vignette across the June to August span of months. There are moments of true beauty (the dawning realization that the fabled Time Machine the boys are so excited about is none other than ancient Colonel Freeleigh who spins stories about the Civil War and hunting buffalo with Pawnee Bill) and true terror (Lavinia Nebbs walking through the dark ravine when The Lonely One, a serial killer, is still on the loose). The real Time Machine conductor here is Bradbury himself as he transports readers back to a small Midwestern town of the 1920s, a world of trolleys, soda fountains, junk peddlers, Saturday afternoon matinees, and sitting on the front porch in the evening eating chilled foil-wrapped Eskimo Pies and falling asleep to the sound of the adults’ conversation murmuring soft while the squeak of their rocking chairs sing like crickets into the falling blanket of night.

As I mentioned earlier, Ray Bradbury was a genius when it came to imagery and character-building. I’ll leave you with a single paragraph in which he sums up the everything we need to know about John Huff, one of Douglas’ best friends:
The facts about John Huff, aged twelve, are simple and soon stated. He could pathfind more trails than any Choctaw or Cherokee since time began, could leap from the sky like a chimpanzee from a vine, could live underwater two minutes and slide fifty yards downstream from where you last saw him. The baseballs you pitched him he hit in the apple trees, knocking down harvests. He could jump six-foot orchard walls, swing up branches faster and come down, fat with peaches, quicker than anyone else in the gang. He ran laughing. He sat easy. He was not a bully. He was kind. His hair was dark and curly and his teeth were white as cream. He remembered the words to all the cowboy songs and would teach you if you asked. He knew the names of all the wild flowers and when the moon would rise and set and when the tides came in or out. He was, in fact, the only god living in the whole of Green Town, Illinois, during the twentieth century that Douglas Spaulding knew of.
If, like me before a couple of weeks ago, you’ve never read Dandelion Wine, now would be the best time to do so, while we still have a few golden drops of summer left in the bottle. As Bradbury warns us, “August was almost over. The first cool touch of autumn moved slowly through the town and there was a softening and the first gradual burning fever of color in every tree, a faint flush and coloring in the hills, and the color of lions in the wheat fields.”