Every summer I never fail to take my paperback copy of Dandelion Wine down from the shelf. I say this not to brag, not to be that front-row kid who dashed through the school’s approved summer reading list in the first weeks of break and moved on to War and Peace and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. In fact, I rarely reread the novel from start to finish when the 21st of June races by on the calendar. Yet I’ve come to realize I must dip into those yellowing pages, adding yet another crease to the rippled binding, otherwise something seems missing from the season, something’s not quite right.
English journalist Hillarie Belloc maintained he could go no longer than a year without repairing to Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. In Samuel Johnson’s proto-novel, the prince leaves the Happy Valley to find his way in, and the ways of, the world. Belloc found following the prince’s journey necessary for him to keep his own bearings in life.
It’s not, I think, a bearing in life I seek. It’s an annual desire to reacquaint myself with the vistas of summer. Vistas wide and golden as the prairie itself. Times when school hallways darkened and three months of light beckoned. Days when the air seemed saturated with possibilities.
In Bradury’s lyrical novel, 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding concludes some things happen every summer that help make summer truly summer: “The first root beer pop of the year. The first time running barefoot in the grass of the year. First time almost drowning in the lake of the year. First watermelon. First mosquito. First harvest of dandelions. ” These he lists in his tablet under “RITES AND CEREMONIES.”
When he reaches one of these milestones and a thought, “crazy or not,” comes to him, he puts it under “DISCOVERIES AND REVELATIONS.” The novel’s title comes from the wine that Doug’s grandfather makes every summer in one of those rites and ceremonies of the season. He tells his brother, “Here’s what I got on the wine: Every time you bottle it, you got a whole chunk of 1928 put away, safe.” In a glass (only a sip for Doug and his brother Tom) that summer — the distilled essence of summer — lives and can be recaptured when leaves turn and fall and snow fills the lane.
So it is with Dandelion Wine: Bradbury has captured the essence of summer.
I bid you to sample, then to drink deeply at your leisure.
Hunting for fox grapes with his brother and father, Douglas feels something in the air, a monumental but invisible presence. And whatever it is, it appears to be seeking him, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. And then:
The grass whispered under his body. He put his arm down, feeling the sheath of fuzz on it, and, far away, below, his toes creaking in his shoes. The wind sighed over his shelled ears. The world slipped bright over the glassy round of his eyeballs like images sparked in a crystal sphere. Flowers were suns and fiery spots of sky strewn through the woodland. Birds flickered like skipped stones across the vast inverted pond of heaven. His breath raked over his teeth, going in ice, coming out fire. Insects shocked the air with electric clearness. Ten thousand individual hairs grew a millionth of an inch on his head. He heard the twin hearts beating in each ear, the third heart beating in his throat, the two hearts throbbing his wrists, the real heart pounding his chest. The million pores on his body opened.
I’m really alive! he thought. I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember.
Bradbury knows. He must. I know of no better rendition in literature of that moment, if we’re lucky, if we’re chosen, when God, the universe, I don’t know who or what, whispers we’re alive. I must have been nine or ten at the time and in the back of my parents’ drug store unpacking freight. While I stacked bottles of medication on makeshift shelves of boards and cinderblocks, it came to me. In this dark bunker of a backroom, the only sunlight peeking through a patch of glass brick, it came to me: I am alive. Here and now, at this very moment, I am alive. Like Lincoln and Washington long ago, I am alive.
That stunning realization fades. We grow older. We get busy. Worse yet, life may become dreary, a misbegotten patchwork of days and fears. But, under Bradbury’s spell, we’re taken back. Once again we can make out the outline of the magical moment. If only dimly, we can sense that electrifying realization: I am alive. Here and now, I am alive.
And I also remember what it was like to put on a new pair of tennis shoes. Why, with those jet-white numbers, you figured you could streak past any defender to snag the game-winning pass, pedal the dirt bike so fast your legs would disappear in a blur, bound down grassy slopes with such giant strides that you might become airborne against the rich blue sky! This, too, Bradbury captures. Douglas wants new sneakers, but he doesn’t have enough money. He convinces the shop’s owner, Mr. Sanderson, to try on a pair on his own aging feet. Then Douglas spells out the deal:
I deliver your packages, pick up packages, bring you coffee, burn your trash, run to the post office, telegraph office, library! You’ll see twelve of me in and out, in and out, every minute. Feel those shoes, Mr. Sanderson, feel how fast they’d take me? All those springs inside? Feel all the running inside? Feel how they kind of grab hold and can’t let you alone and don’t like you just standing there? Feel how quick I’d be doing the things you’d rather not bother with? You stay in the nice cool store while I’m jumping all around town! But it’s not me really, it’s the shoes. They’re going like mad down alleys, cutting corners and back! There they go!
Amazed, the sneaker-clad Mr. Sanderson “rocked softly, secretly, back and forth in a small breeze from the open door. The tennis shoes silently hushed themselves deep in the carpet, sank as in a jungle grass, in loam and resilient clay. He gave one solemn bounce … Emotions hurried over his face as if many colored lights had been switched on and off.”
He accepts the boy’s offer.
One fine summer morning, Doug’s grandfather awakes to that most splendid of sounds, a lawn mower. His mood soon changes. This may be the last time he hears the sound. A boarder in the house by the name of Bill Forrester thinks he’s done him a favor. He’s purchased grass that won’t need mowing. Some favor, Grandpa thinks. “There’s a thing about the lawn mower I can’t even tell you,” he says, “but to me it’s the most beautiful sound in the world, the freshest sound of the season, the sound of summer, and I’d miss it fearfully if it wasn’t there, and I’d miss the smell of cut grass.”
That afternoon Grandpa wakes from his nap to a familiar sound. Bill Forrester is mowing the lawn — again. “I think I missed a few spots!” he calls out. In bed, smiling and at ease, Grandpa listens as “Bill Forrester cut the lawn north, then west, then south, then west, then south, and finally, in a great green spraying fountain, toward the east.”
I mow my own lawn. Won’t have it any other way. Every year it seems I’m the last on the block to ascent that the yellowish brown of winter is really subsiding. Finally, I give in. And there it is. I’d forgotten it: the smell of fresh-cut grass. I’m reminded of mowing my grandparent’s lawn and how I took the same path, cooking pleasantly in the sun, the soles of my sneakers growing greener by the week, the hypnotizing whir of the motor, my mind roaming the future’s blank pages.
I doubt it will come as a surprise that some critics have tarred Bradbury as a rose-colored glasses-wearing sentimentalist. In a 1979 introduction to the novel, Bradbury takes one of those critics to task. This critic wondered how Bradbury could have grown up in Waukegan, Illinois (transformed, for the novel, to Green Town) and not noticed the town’s ugly and depressing harbor, coal docks, and railyards. “But, of course,” Bradbury counters,
I had noticed them and, genetic enchanter that I was, was fascinated by their beauty. Trains and boxcars and the smell of coal and fire are not ugly to children. … Counting boxcars is a prime activity of boys. Their elders fret and fume and jeer at the train that holds them up, but boys count and cry the names of the cars as they pass from far places.
And again, that supposedly ugly railyard was where carnivals and circuses arrived with elephants who washed the brick pavements with mighty steaming acid waters at five in the dark morning.
Nor do such critics read very closely. The boys learn of not only life but of death. And Douglas must grapple with his best friend in the world moving away. Despite promises to write, to visit, we all know how friendships wither with distance.
Dandelion Wine is most likely to annoy people who refuse to be happy, folks who take it as a personal affront if anyone rises above moroseness. Regrettably, the tree-canopied streets of Green Town, Illinois, have failed to encircle the globe or to fill every housing project and neighborhood of this country. But that’s no reason to pretend angrily that those tree-lined summers never existed or, admitting maybe they were real, that they’ve blinked out of existence.
Savor the juice and joy of summer. Ray Bradbury kindly bottled it for us.
– R. Andrew Newman is a freelance journalist in western Nebraska.