Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (1957)

It is the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois, population 26,349. Douglas Spaulding is 12, his brother Tom is ten, they live with mum and dad and in the house opposite live Grandpa and Grandma. Dandelion Wine is a rich, lyrical, sometimes sentimental, sometimes visionary description of this long summer and its events – from the humdrum to the horrifying – which mark it.

The book consists of twenty or so incidents, ranging from short dialogues between Doug and Tom, to lengthy descriptions of specific incidents, with two or three longer self-contained stories about people not related to the Spaldings. It’s quite easy to guess that a lot of these were originally published as separate stories, though Bradbury wrote linking passages incorporating them into Doug and Tom’s world – and also wrote half a dozen or so stories – specifically for this, the book version.

However, there are no chapter breaks or numbers or titles: the text just flows on in one great seamless flood. Breaks between stories are only indicated by white spaces between blocks of text. This is a good idea, it adds to the sense of everything being seen in one continuous stream of consciousness by an excited, questing, thoughtful 12-year-old boy, the centre of the text and hero of most (but not all) the stories, young Doug Spaulding.

The best way to convey the wide-eyed lyrical and visionary worldview of the book is to quote the opening passage in which Doug conjures the summer of 1928 into being.

It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.
Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now . . .
‘Boy,’ whispered Douglas.
A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.
But now—a familiar task awaited him.
One night each week he was allowed to leave his father, his mother, and his younger brother Tom asleep in their small house next door and run here, up the dark spiral stairs to his grandparents’ cupola, and in this sorcerer’s tower sleep with thunders and visions, to wake before the crystal jingle of milk bottles and perform his ritual magic.
He stood at the open window in the dark, took a deep breath and exhaled.
The street lights, like candles on a black cake, went out. He exhaled again and again and the stars began to vanish.
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.
‘Everyone yawn. Everyone up.’
The great house stirred below.
‘Grandpa, get your teeth from the water glass!’ He waited a decent interval. ‘Grandma and Great-grandma, fry hot cakes!’
The warm scent of fried batter rose in the drafty halls to stir the boarders, the aunts, the uncles, the visiting cousins, in their rooms.
‘Street where all the Old People live, wake up! Miss Helen Loomis, Colonel Freeleigh, Miss Bentley! Cough, get up, take pills, move around! Mr. Jonas, hitch up your horse, get your junk wagon out and around!’
The bleak mansions across the town ravine opened baleful dragon eyes. Soon, in the morning avenues below, two old women would glide their electric Green Machine, waving at all the dogs. ‘Mr. Tridden, run to the carbarn!’ Soon, scattering hot blue sparks above it, the town trolley would sail the rivering brick streets.
‘Ready John Huff, Charlie Woodman?’ whispered Douglas to the Street of Children. ‘Ready!’ to baseballs sponged deep in wet lawns, to rope swings hung empty in trees.
‘Mom, Dad, Tom, wake up.’
Clock alarms tinkled faintly. The courthouse clock boomed. Birds leaped from trees like a net thrown by his hand, singing. Douglas, conducting an orchestra, pointed to the eastern sky.
The sun began to rise.
He folded his arms and smiled a magician’s smile. Yes, sir, he thought, everyone jumps, everyone runs when I yell. It’ll be a fine season. He gave the town a last snap of his fingers.
Doors slammed open; people stepped out.
Summer 1928 began.

Doug goes on the first expedition of the summer, taken by his Dad to the woods along with brother Tom to pick fox grapes and wild strawberries. Tom boasts that he caught a snowflake in a matchbox in winter and put it in the freezer. Tom has a new hobby which is counting everything e.g. he’s brushed his teeth ten thousand times in his lifetime and washed his hands 16,000 times. Behind all the usual start-of-summer chatter Doug feels something massive looming and then realises – he is alive! It  hits him in a profound way he’s never thought of before, and the wonder of it lasts through the rest of the book.

Between Doug’s house and Grandpa and Grandma’s house is a lawn which is, by now, covered with dandelions. Grandpa and Doug, as they have time out of mind, collect the dandelions to make wine.

Doug begs his father for a new pair of tennis shoes and goes into raptures about the springy feel of them. He goes to see old Mr Sanderson who keeps the shoe store, offers to become his odd job boy in return for a new pair.

Doug buys a notebook and a new Ticonderoga pencil in which to write down his thoughts and observations. He tells Tom he’s going to set things down under two headings, Rites & Ceremonies, and Discoveries and revelations.

The annual family ritual of setting up the front porch swing, so that all the adults can sit around smoking and chatting on the long summer evenings. Friends drop by or say hello as they walk past. One is Leo Auffmann, the town jeweller, who also fancies himself as an inventor. Doug jokingly suggests that Leo build a Happiness Machine but Leo takes the suggestion very seriously and his efforts dominate the next thirty pages or so of the book.

An atmospheric sequence in which Doug goes missing, seen through the eyes of brother Tom who’s at home with their mum and, as teatime comes and the evening draws on and Doug doesn’t turn up, becomes increasingly worried, then agitated. Eventually she walks, Tom with her, out to the big deep dark ravine on the edge of town, mum calling out louder and louder with real anxiety. Then with a whoop and a cry Doug and his mates, John Huff, Charlie Woodman, come running shouting and perfectly safe out of the darkness. They lost track of time, were having too much fun etc.

Young man Bill Forrester as a gift digs up a lot of Grandpa’s lawn and plants it with a new-fangled variety of grass which stops growing when it’s short. Politely, Grandpa tells him to dig it back up again and replace it with the kind that grows long because one of the pleasures of summer is the sound of the mower and the smell of new-mown grass.

Back to Leo Auffmann slaving day and night over the Happiness Machine, wandering the town, scouring it for ideas, staying up late, working his fingers to the bone, working so hard he loses weight and eventually faints. When it’s ready he asks his sceptical and long-suffering wife, Lena, to try it: she gets into the eight-foot-high orange contraption, presses the Go button and emerges minutes later sobbing with misery. The machine had played romantic music and shown footage of romantic places like Paris. But all it served to do was awaken longings in Lena to go to those places, longings she knows can never be fulfilled. Hence the tears.

Leo is mortified. The reader reflects that this is a reflection on the idea that machines can make us happy, that machines can replace human love and affection. The Happiness Machine overheats and bursts into flames. Lena restrains the family from calling the fire brigade till it’s definitely too late. In a deeply moralistic coda, Grandpa, Doug and Tom watch a defeated Leo go up the steps and into his house and then watch him move between mother in the kitchen, daughter drawing at the table, son playing with a train set on the floor. That is the real, enduring, timeless Happiness Machine – the loving Family.

Doug helps Grandma beat the immensely dusty old rugs.

A beautifully humorous and touching story about old Mrs Bentley who is visited by two little girls who simply won’t believe that she was ever a young girl like themselves. Initially Mrs Bentley is upset and frustrated but then… gives in, and next time they visit, happily accepts the role of ancient old lady.

One of his two best buddies, Charlie Woodman, takes Doug to see a real life Time Machine, which turns out to be the very ancient and bed- or chair-ridden Colonel Freeleigh who, when prompted, tells them stories about the old Wild West, about the prairies covered with buffalo as far as the eye can see, taking them back in time.

The Green Machine is a funny insect-like automobile sold to two spinsters Miss Fern and Miss Roberta, by a smooth-talking salesman. The story starts with them having run home and up to hide in their attic because one fine day, pootling along at ten miles an hour, nice Mr Quatermain stepped out in front of the Green Machine and they ran him over. The story features their feverish recriminations, the man who sold it to them etc, until Doug knocks on their front door and assures them everything’s alright, Mr Quatermain is fine.

Mr Tridden, the trolleycar motorman, treats the town’s kids by not stopping the trolley at its terminus but continuing on along the old abandoned rails out into the countryside where they have a wonderful picnic!

Doug’s friend John Huff announces his family are leaving Green Town and so he’s moving away. The boys then play an emotionally fraught game of hide and seek and freeze! or Statues, during which Bradbury explores the inability of a 12-year-old to process the fact that his friend is abandoning him and breaking up the gang.

A self-contained story in which Elvira Brown becomes convinced that goody two-shoes Clara Goodwater, head of the town’s ladies club, is a witch who’s been casting a hex on her for years to make her so hapless and clumsy. In a climactic meeting to elect a new president, the ladies watch Elvira accuse Clara head on, before stomping off in a huff and falling down the entire flight of steps to the meeting room. Rushing down Clara does – I think – in fact reveal that she’s a witch who’s been sticking pins in a model of Elvira for years, and vows to stop. This fantasy is integrated into the book by having it all witnessed by Tom who Elvira co-opts as a sort of confidant and mascot.

Colonel Freeleigh, very ill and bed-bound, uses the phone to ring his old friend Jorge in Mexico City and begs him to open the window of his office so the colonel can hears, from thousands of miles away, the hubbub and street sounds of the city which bring back memories of his adventurous youth. The colonel had crawled out of bed to reach the phone and now he slumps down the side of the wall to the floor where, hours, later Doug and his friends discover him, dead.

Doug and Grandpa bottle the dandelion wine in carefully numbered bottles which record every individual day of the long hot summer.

A self-contained story which tells the strange love affair between Bill Forrester and old Helen Loomis, well over 70. Bill was given a photo of the young Helen and went looking for her at the town dance only to realise that was fifty years ago. He pays a social call out of respect but finds himself… not exactly falling in love, but developing a real fondness for the old lady and her no-nonsense conversation. After weeks of frequent calls which begin to make town gossips talk, Helen writes Bill a letter which he will receive when she has passed away. A few weeks later he receives.

Another long story, maybe the longest in the book, concerns the outing of Miss Lavinia Nebbs and her two friends, Francine and Helen Greer, who meet up and go to the pictures. the whole town is talking about the serial killer they have named the Lonely One who has strangled two young women recently. After the movie Lavinia decides, out of bravado, to walk her two friends home and then, by herself, to descend the hundred or so steps into the deep darkness if the ravine, which we’ve mentioned before encroaches into part of the town, slowly becoming more spooked and scared, by threatening sounds and sights glimpsed out the corner of her eye. Bradbury very successfully cranks up the terror of the woman nerving herself to continue down into the darkness, cross the bridge, up the other side, onto the street, hurrying along the pavement convinced someone is following her, up her drive then a fatal few seconds fumbling with the keys to her house, before stumbling into the house and slamming the door shut, leaning with her back against it, her heart racing in the darkness… And it is only then that…

She put her hand out to the light switch and stopped.
‘What?’ she asked. ‘What, What?’
Behind her in the living room, someone cleared his throat.

In another linking passage, next morning we see Doug, Tom and their mates discussing what happened next. What happened was that in a panic frenzy Miss Nebbs stabbed the strange intruder to death. Now the boys wonder whether it was The Lonely One at all, or just some hobo who’d wandered by looking for shelter.

Cut to a sweet bucolic vignette describing the never-ending work of good kindly old Great Grandma, who works her fingers to the bone for everyone, then one day retired to her bed, makes herself ready, and passes away.

A long story about the Tarot Witch, an automated model which stands in a glass frame in the carnival. You pay a cent and the model witch reads the cards and doles out a card. Doug and Tom try it but it breaks and the grumpy old owner, Mr Black, complains, hits the case and hangs an Out of Order sign on it. Doug and Tom are entranced by the idea that the witch can read the future and Doug even devises an entirely fiction biography of her whereby she is a real woman who told fortunes at the time of Napoleon until she told him to his face he would be defeated at which point he ordered her covered in wax and turned into an automaton. So, logically enough, they decide to pump it with enough money to encourage bad old Mr Black to go and consume a lot of Magic Philtre (i.e. scotch) at the local speakeasy. This he does, returning drunk and passing out. Which allows Doug and Tom to break into the show, and quietly steal the Tarot Witch. They carry her out to a secret place at the edge of the ravine and are discussing what to do with her when bad Mr Black burst into the clearing, takes a swipe at them, which they duck, grabs the witch and throws her bodily far out into the ravine amid all the other junk, before collapsing and passing out. Tearfully Doug and Tom go home and persuade their dad to make the heroic effort to come out to the ravine with them, look for it, find it, carry it home and… he manages to fix the busted mechanism so it doles out fortunes once again.

The temperature hits its summer peak, way up in the 90s and Doug falls ill with a fever. He is cured by the magical mysterious junk man Mr Jonas who comes to him late at night and leaves two bottles filled with very special air, all the way from the Arctic via the Hudson Valley and marinaded in creek and spring, with dashes of papaya, lime, and health-giving water-smelling fruits. He sits by the bed Doug’s family have made for him out in the garden (where it’s coolest), tells the feverishly sleeping Doug all about them, then titptoes away. Minutes later Doug stirs and reaches for the bottles. In the morning he is recovering from his fever.

The impression given by Doug’s hallucinating thoughts is that he went through an existential crisis during his fever. the accumulation of deaths has deeply affected him. It makes him realise, deny, then realise again the fact of his own mortality. Appalled at the prospect of his own death he falls sick. But something about Mr Jonas and his magic elixir of life triggered his recovery. He decides to live, a sadder but a wiser boy. The entire book, therefore, is framed by these two big moments – his initial bursting gushing realisation that he’s alive! – and then the darker realisation that friends leave, grandmas die, change is inevitable and that he himself is mortal. Symbolically, next morning, the morning of his recovery, sees the first heavy drops of a summer storm to break the heatwave.

Then a comic story about a distant relative, Aunt Rose, who comes to stay. For time out of mind Grandma has made magical meals from all sorts of ingredients kept in the haphazard mess of her kitchen, working by instinct. Aunt Rose insists they tidy up the kitchen and pantry, putting all the ingredients in jugs and jars properly named and even buys Grandma a cookbook. With the inevitable result that Grandma’s cooking goes bad, really bad, becomes inedible.

One night Doug sneaks into her kitchen and messes it up again, empties all the nice tidy jars, burns the cookbook in the stove. the roaring heat wakes everyone up including Grandma who comes down and prepares a midnight feast for the family which is, of course, a storming return to form.

Then suddenly it is autumn. They stand with Grandpa on the porch, sniffing the cooling air, looking at the first leaves turning. They take down the porch swing and pack it away int he cellar, next to the crates of dandelion wine. Up in the attic bedroom, in the cupola above Grandpa and Grandma’s bedroom, Doug makes the last entries in his journal for 1928 and then, as he had made the magical invocation to start the summer, now he stands at the window, looking over the town, and formally shuts it down.

Douglas in the high cupola above the town, moved his hand.
‘Everyone, clothes off!’
He waited. The wind blew, icing the windowpane.
‘Brush teeth.’
He waited again.
‘Now,’ he said at last, ‘out with the lights!’
He blinked. And the town winked out its lights, sleepily, here, there, as the courthouse clock struck ten, ten-thirty, eleven, and drowsy midnight.
‘The last ones now . . .there . . .there . . .’
He lay in his bed and the town slept around him and the ravine was dark and the lake was moving quietly on its shore and everyone, his family, his friends, the old people and the young, slept on one street or another, in one house or another, or slept in the far country churchyards.
He shut his eyes.
June dawns, July noons, August evenings over, finished, done, and gone forever with only the sense of it all left here in his head. Now, a whole autumn, a white winter, a cool and greening spring to figure sums and totals of summer past. And if he should forget, the dandelion wine stood in the cellar, numbered huge for each and every day. He would go there often, stare straight into the sun until he could stare no more, then close his eyes and consider the burned spots, the fleeting scars left dancing on his warm eyelids; arranging, rearranging each fire and reflection until the pattern was clear . . .
So thinking, he slept.
And, sleeping, put an end to Summer, 1928.

Magic.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – nineteen stories loosely telling the colonisation of Mars but much weirder and stranger than that suggests
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country – nineteen stories of the gruesome and the macabre
1957 Dandelion Wine – wonderfully uplifting stories based on Bradbury’s own boyhood growing up in a small town in rural Illinois
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

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