What am I doing, picking a Ray Bradbury book off the library shelf? I asked myself.
All I knew about Bradbury was that he was famous, and that he wrote Fahrenheit 451, a paperback on the shelf in my sister’s bedroom.
Fahrenheit’s protagonist is a fireman in a time and place where books are illegal and his job is to find them and burn them.
In other words, I had stumbled into dystopia.
I believe I read the whole thing. It went down like a cookie ruined by raisins and walnuts. Then I stumbled right back out of futuristic horror and never went back. You’ll notice that you never those kind of book recommendations here (you’re welcome).
So how did Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine end up on my list?
I held it out like a dirty sock. I read the back cover. “A magical, timeless summer in the life of a twelve-year-old boy,” it said.
I’ll be the judge of that.
The thing is, Fahrenheit 451 is the only science fiction/fantasy Bradbury ever wrote. So, possibly, he wrote other things I might enjoy.
At any rate, in Dandelion Wine, Bradbury turns his attention to his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. Re-naming it Green Town, he spins the story of a summer in which Douglas Spaulding vows make every moment stretch out as long as possible.
The story opens when Doug sleeps in the cupola of his grandparents’ house. He wakes early, stands before the window and “performs his ritual magic.”
“Douglas smiled. He pointed a finger.
“There, and there. Now over here, and here . . .
“Yellow squares were cut in the dim morning earth as house lights winked slowly on. A sprinkle of windows came suddenly alight miles off in dawn country. . . .
“’Street where all the Old People live, wake up! . . . Cough, get up, take pills, move around!’”
When Green Town finally stirs, we meet Mrs. Bentley.
“Mrs. Bentley was a saver. She saved tickets, old theatre programs, bits of lace, scarves rail transfers, all the tags and tokens of existence.
“ . . .The one thing she had most enjoyed touching and listening to and looking at she hadn’t saved. John was far out in the meadow country, dated and boxed and hidden under grasses, and nothing remained of him but his high silk hat and his cane and his good suit in the closet.”
One day, Mrs. Bentley buys ice cream for the children. She tells them she was once a little girl like them. They fix her with a level look and tell her, “’My mother says it isn’t nice to fib.’”
We meet the junkman, who drives up and down the streets in his squeaky cart. Children pick through the furniture, the roller skates, the games of checkers until they find something they must have. He closes his eyes. They grab their new treasure, run home with it, then hurry back to the wagon with:
“a doll or a game they had grown tired of, something the fun had gone out of, like the flavor from gum, and now it was time for it to pass on to some other part of town where, seen for the first time, it would be revivified and would revivify others.”
We meet people who would be sweethearts if only their timing had been better.
We meet Grandma, whose cooking is so magical that the dinner bell only has to ring once:
“Their arrival in the dining room had been for countless years a sort of frantic musical chairs, as they shook out napkins in a white fluttering and seized up utensils as if recently starved in solitary confinement.”
By August, Doug’s summer has filled up with boyish tragedies:
“’[H]e lost his best aggie . . . a real beaut. And on top of that somebody stole his catcher’s mitt, it cost a dollar ninety-five. Then there was the bad trade he made of his fossil stones and shell collection with Charlie Woodman for a Tarzan clay statue you got by saving up macaroni box tops. Dropped the Tarzan statue on the sidewalk second day he had it.’”
The biggest tragedy of all is the sweet moments that can’t stay. Doug lives his summer like I wish I lived every moment, savoring and noticing. He lives aware of everything from the growing grass blades to the fact that he’s running across a ball that spins through space. But that could be because all this is written by the gifted Bradbury, whom I barely had the courage to try.
This is a book that made my want to gather my grandsons around for a read-aloud.
And I nearly missed out on it.
Check out Haystacks Frito-Style here.