Summer in a Bottle: Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine
For those of us up here in the northern hemisphere, summer has just begun, although many of us having been having unusually summery days since March. This is a great time to talk about Dandelion Wine.
“I don’t want to die!” Douglas screamed without a sound. “You’ll have to anyway, said the voice, you’ll have to anyway…” (p. 226).
Douglas Spaulding calls forth the first day of summer in the cupola of his grandparent’s house at daybreak – pointing to house by house, saying “Everybody up” and “Miss Helen Loomis…Cough, get up, take pills, move around!” as, in perfect synchrony, house lights blink on one by one.
Douglas is 12 and lives with his parents and brother Tom in Green Town, Illinois. His grandparents and great-grandma live nearby. Douglas rushes through his days pell mell, savoring late night ice cream in the heat, and thrilling himself with his friends in the ravine where “The Lonely One” – the town serial killer – is thought to live.
From the Celtic Lady blog.
Our Douglas is a writer, staying up late writing on notepads by the light of a dozen fireflies designed to keep his parents from knowing that he is awake. He moves through the town, passing time with its residents, young and old, and learning their stories.
Miss Helen Loomis, 92, was a beautiful girl who refused all beaus and remained unmarried. Young Bill Anderson saw her picture as a 20 year old and fell in love. Now, as a 30 year old man, he spends two weeks of afternoons with her as she takes him all over the world with stories of her travels. Finally, meeting the one meant for her, she can let go.
Lavinia Nebbs is on her way to the picture show with a friend when they find pretty young Elizabeth Ramsell strangled by The Lonely One. Yet Lavinia insists on going to the movies and heading home, through the ravine, alone. The Lonely One is in for a surprise.
Mr. Leo Kaufmann, the town jeweler, builds a happiness machine from spare parts.
Mr. Jonas, once rich, has become a junk man, circling the town with his wagon – residents may choose one item from his goods, the one that they can’t live without, and then must, in turn, give up something for another person. Mr. Jonas saves Douglas with his bottle of “GREEN DUSK FOR DREAMING BRAND PURE AIR” full of camphor, wintergreen, and the rising air from the Des Moines River.
Douglas’ grandpa has him gather each summer month’s dandelions for bottling as wine and filling the cellar with: “Second harvest of summer. June’s on the shelf. Here’s July. Now, just August up ahead” (p. 169). The book ends on the last day of summer.
This semi-autobiographical coming of age story tells of Douglas’ realization that a) he is alive and b) he is going to die. He must come to terms with both and the fact that so many of those he loves will also die. I suspect that Bradbury’s childhood inspired the book, and that he may even have used vignettes from Waukegan, Illinois, but I don’t think it is literally autobiographical – too much wonderful magic.
I encountered this book as a teenager living in a tiny village in upstate New York and loved it immediately. This is my first re-read in over 30 years. Because the world lost Ray Bradbury just a couple weeks ago, I decided to re-encounter this beautiful book that I loved so many years ago. If anything, I found the book that much more stunning, gorgeous, and evocative this time around.
Somehow, with his layers and layers of images, Bradbury captures the beauty and ugliness, light and dark, nostalgic and realistic, of young life in a small town in 20th Century America. If you are eager to understand American culture, you would do well to read this book. If you want a lovely, poignant book to read this summer, try Dandelion Wine. If you’ve never read it before, for goodness sake, lay your hands on it – you won’t be sorry!
Happy reading, Ruby