In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field: books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Sometimes you don’t need to ride a spaceship or travel to other worlds to find adventure. Sometimes, if you open your eyes, you realize adventure is all around you; that we live in a world infused with the mystical. Sometimes, as Ray Bradbury showed us in his classic book, Dandelion Wine, all you have to do is imagine what summertime would be like if you were twelve years old again.
One thing I like to do in this column is to put the works I review into context—either the context of the time when they were written, or the times when I discovered them. With Dandelion Wine, this book about a twelve-year-old is inextricably connected to my own life at the same age. When I first read the book, like Douglas Spaulding, I was at a time of life when everything I did felt magical. While Douglas was 12 in 1928 and I was 12 in 1967, so we grew up in different eras, there were many things in his story that connected with my own life, and my father’s own stories of growing up in that era helped fill in any gaps in my knowledge. Like Douglas and his brother, my brothers and I were given pails and sent out to collect wild grapes when they were in season. And I remember the days when getting new sneakers in the spring was a vital part of my life—for Douglas it was Creme-Sponge Para Lightfoot shoes, while for me it was the PF Flyers worn by Jonny Quest in the cartoons, or the Red Ball Jets that made you run faster and jump higher.
Douglas remembered traveling on trolleys, which were long gone by the time I was around, but I had ridden trolleys at a nearby rail museum, and heard my grandmother’s stories of how most of her extended family had worked for the trolley company when she was young. Douglas had a spooky ravine to worry about, while I had deep woods in which to wander. And my neighborhood, like Douglas’, was full of sprawling extended families, interesting characters, and elderly people eager to share stories about the old days. I especially remember old Mr. Edgar, who traveled the neighborhood in a pickup with wooden spokes instead of hubcaps and a cargo bed made of rough-hewn wood. He was always good for a ride to the corner store for penny candy, and stories about elusive Native Americans who still walked the nearby woods. In fact, there is not a vignette in Dandelion Wine that does not remind me in some way of my own summers as a youngster. Dandelion Wine is, like the wine of the title, the essence of summer, but instead of being captured inside a bottle, that essence is captured between the covers of the book.
The copy I reviewed is a Bantam paperback from the 13th Edition, for some reason marked as a “Special Edition” on the cover. When I opened it, I found not only my name inside the cover, but my Coast Guard service number, indicating this was one of the precious few paperbacks I brought with me when I first left home. The smell of its yellow pages was part of what brought me back so strongly to the days of my youth.
About the Author
Ray Douglas Bradbury (1920-2012) was one of the most prominent American science fiction and fantasy writers of the latter half of the 20th Century, and was well known not only within the genre but by the public at large. Bradbury also wrote in other genres, and worked as a playwright and screenwriter. One of his most widely remembered screenplays was for the 1956 movie version of Moby Dick, directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck. His cautionary novel Fahrenheit 451 quickly became required reading for many high school students across the United States (and elsewhere). He started his career as an avid science fiction fan, and began selling stories to science fiction magazines in his early 20s. Over the course of his career, Bradbury also sold a significant portion of his output to mainstream magazines including Collier’s, Esquire, Mademoiselle, McCall’s and the Saturday Evening Post. He was a protégé of Leigh Brackett, collaborating with her on a planetary romance story, “Lorelei of the Red Mist.” While his work frequently had science fiction elements, it more often fit into the fantasy and horror genres. He wrote hundreds of short stories, and was a master of that format: Among his most widely known works are a pair of short story collections, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, and much of his shorter work appeared in many other collections released during his career. Many of his works were adapted for other media, including theater, radio plays, comic books, television, and movies.
Bradbury served as a creative consultant for the United States Pavilion located at the World’s Fair held in New York City in 1964 and 1965. He assisted in the creation of the Spaceship Earth ride at Disney’s Epcot theme park, a ride that still operates today, celebrating the role of communications in human progress.
Bradbury’s work and contributions to the field were recognized by a World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement in 1977, and by selection as a SFWA Grand Master in 1989. In 1999, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. In his honor, in 2010 a SFWA annual award was renamed the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation. A few of the many other honors he received include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an Emmy Award, a National Medal of Arts, a special Pulitzer citation, and an asteroid and landing site on Mars named in his honor.
The book begins with Douglas Spaulding waking up in the cupola of his grandparents’ house, next door to his parents’ home. He stands at the window, pretending he is kind of an orchestra conductor, directing the actions of Green Town as everyone awakens and the day begins. As a younger reader, I knew that Bradbury’s writing connected with me in a unique way… but I didn’t know why. Now I see that his writing, while disguised as prose, is actually quite poetical. There are no rhymes or iambic pentameter, or any of the overt signs of poetry. But there is a rhythm and a pulse that sweeps you away, bringing the story to life in a visceral way. And the events that occur in Green Town, while simple and pastoral, are full of archetypes, themes, and symbolism that would be at home in the most epic of fantasies. The story is episodic, paced like the events of a real, lived summer. Some of the vignettes fit the overall theme, while some just occur when they occur.
Douglas and his brother Tom go out to collect grapes, strawberries, and dandelions. The dandelions go to their grandfather, who presses the petals and bottles the resulting wine, something that can remind them of summer during the winter months. Amid this, Douglas comes to realize that he is alive in a way he has never truly appreciated before. Desperate for the sneakers he needs to make summer complete, Douglas barters with the shoe store owner in a way that shows he could not just be a shoe salesman, but a shoe evangelist. Tom and Douglas decide to keep track of all the things that will happen during the summer, and come up with a set of rather grandiose categories to help keep track of these experiences, including Rites, Ceremonies, Discoveries, Revelations, Illuminations, and Intuitions.
One of the longest threads in the book is the story of local inventor Leo Auffmann, who sets out to build a Happiness Machine. In the process, he makes himself and his family miserable, and his device, while reminding people of marvelous things, ends up ultimately making them sadder. When the machine short circuits and burns down his garage, Leo realizes that his own home is already a Happiness Machine, with his family at the heart of this marvelous device.
Douglas’ mother worries about him one night when he comes home late; when she brings Tom with her to the Ravine to search for him, Tom realizes that even adults get scared—an idea he finds quite disturbing. Grandfather Spaulding has a confrontation with one of the boarders in their boarding house who wants to plant a variety of grass that never needs mowing, and which will choke out weeds and dandelions. He points out that mowing—with the soft whir of lawnmower blades and the smell of freshly cut grass, a simple task that few appreciate—is one of the great joys of life.
A major theme of the book is memory, and the interactions between the old and the young who share those memories. We meet Mrs. Bentley, who has saved memorabilia from throughout her life, but despite these artifacts, finds herself unable to convince the local children that she was ever young like them. The boys discover that Colonel Freeleigh, an elderly man who lives nearby, is like a time machine, and that his stories can transport them to a Wild West full of buffaloes and to the battlefields of the Civil War. We meet Miss Fern and Miss Roberta, two elderly, unmarried sisters who own an electric car that everyone knows as the “Green Machine.”
In a book about memories, it is impossible to avoid the subject of loss. The neighborhood children are invited to take a free ride on the local trolley, only to find that it is their final ride, because the quiet trolley is being replaced with a more practical bus. Douglas learns that his best friend John Huff is moving away, and finds himself so angry he spoils their farewell. We get a fun story about the jealous busybody Elmira Brown, who envies the more popular Clara Goodwater, and whose life is transformed when the other women take pity on her and allow her dreams to come true. We learn that old Colonel Freeleigh loves to telephone an old friend in Mexico City, and simply listen to the sounds of the city he loved, and he dies on the phone while listening to the long-distance bustle of the city one last time. We get an improbable love story between middle-aged Bill Forrester and elderly Helen Loomis. He had seen an old picture of her, taken a long time ago, and fallen in love; the two form a close friendship despite their age difference. Before she dies, Helen expresses her hope they will be reincarnated as people of the same age.
There is an artfully crafted horror story that unfolds amid this quiet small-town life, as the boys excitedly discuss the local legend of a murderer called the Lonely One, and Lavinia Nebbs finds the body of a murdered woman in the Ravine. Lavinia then must deal with her own fears, which turn out to be well justified. As Douglas and Tom deal with all the news of murder and death, their great-grandma dies. Douglas experiences some disillusionment, realizing that you can’t depend on people or things, but can’t quite bring himself to admit that he, too, will someday die. Later, attempting to battle fate itself, when the mechanical Tarot Witch who dispenses fortunes at the local arcade breaks down, Douglas and Tom rescue her from the drunken arcade owner.
We meet Mr. Jonas and Ned his horse, a junkman who understands that one man’s junk is another’s treasure. When Douglas falls ill during the hottest days of summer and is left outside to keep cool, Mr. Jonas helps him recover with bottles of pure air from faraway places—although it may be the tales that go along with the jars that actually do the trick. There is a visit from a well-meaning Aunt Rose, who almost ruins the meals served at the boardinghouse when she reorganizes Grandma’s kitchen. The recovered Douglas saves the day by restoring the chaos that was at the heart of her cooking. And, just as suddenly as summer began, school supplies appear on display in show windows, and the season draws to a close. Douglas and Tom think back over all their adventures and experiences; from his high cupola, as he prepares for bed, Douglas directs the activities of the town as night comes, and summer is over.
The book is a remarkable treasury of memories, pleasures, moments of loss and mourning. While it celebrates the joys of youth, it also foreshadows the responsibilities and suffering of adulthood. It is full of pain, but is all the more moving for dealing with such weighty topics. And Bradbury knows how to evoke the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of summer in an immediate and powerful way. I remembered that the book was not science fiction, but was surprised to rediscover the fact that it is not really fantasy, either, as there is nothing in the book that could not happen in the imagination of a young boy. At the same time, however, the book is completely infused with a sense of magic and whimsy.
If you haven’t read Dandelion Wine, I recommend that you go out and do so immediately. Read it during the summer, outside in the sunshine if you can. And I’m sure that, like me, you’ll find memories of your own youth flooding up to the surface. The protagonist may be a young boy in a Midwestern town, but the stories and feelings evoked in the book are universal. Ray Bradbury is a treasure, one of the finest examples of the writers who filled the pages of magazines during the heyday of American short fiction.
And now you get the chance to chime in: If you’ve read Dandelion Wine, what are your favorite scenes or lines from the book? What memories from your own life did they remind you of? And if there are any other works by Ray Bradbury you would like to mention or discuss, that would be within bounds as well…
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.