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The bywords for young people in the late 1960s were, of course, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. This mantra seeped down even to my small Illinois hometown, which could hardly be characterized as a countercultural hotbed. Despite my town’s inherent conservatism, though, we high-schoolers in the late sixties felt restless. This stirring erupted as a tentative questioning of authority, as we said to our high-school teachers, “We don’t want to do that.”
The first occasion of our new refutation of authority occurred in my junior English class. We didn’t want to read another book as boring as Silas Marner. “Relevance,” we demanded. (Well, more like asked.) Through the cloud of her advancing age and lack of sophistication (having lived and taught in no other place than my hometown—her hometown), our teacher miraculously understood. The next day she toted in 20 copies of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Unfamiliarity didn’t dampen our interest; skepticism was knocked to the floor by the nonclassic look of the cover. OK, we were game.
We read unreluctantly, immediately transfixed. We simply ate the novel up. We knew Douglas Spaulding, the 12-year-old primary character; we knew small-town life, even as aware and accepting as we were of natural cultural differences between 1928, when the novel is set, and our year of 1966. The novel held us in its magic.
Recently, I returned to it after all these years to see if I would succumb to its magic anew.
As the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois, dawns, Douglas Spaulding is convinced this will be a special season and that new and significant experiences are awaiting him: a “summer of unguessed wonders.” The novel’s title indicates a summer preoccupation of Douglas’ grandfather: gathering a bounty of dandelion blossoms to make wine, which would then be opened on a cold winter day. “Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass . . . change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.”
The novel is a series of rather discrete chapters featuring recurring characters and building one upon another in an atmospheric and crescendoing pageant of Douglas’ summer. Indicative of this summer’s uniqueness, as well as a harbinger of Bradbury’s continued expansion, in subsequent fiction, into science fiction and fantasy, Leo Auffmann, the town jeweler, announces he intends to build a “happiness machine.” He’s been challenged by Douglas’ grandfather to “invent something that will make the future brighter, well rounded, infinitely joyous.” The contraption Leo comes up with, into which a person climbs to supposedly experience happiness, is, as it turns out, a “sadness machine.” As Leo’s wife tells him, “You forget [that] some hour, some day, we all got to climb out of that thing and go back to dirty dishes and the beds not made.”
The novel’s endearingly eccentric characters and their small-town activities and routines, which speak across time to many readers’ personal experiences, form the first layer of Dandelion Wine’s charm and appeal. But a second layer underlays the first, like something lurking in the basement. This layer is a pervasive atmosphere of foreboding. The double-layering effect is what readers take away from the novel. My coworker Dan Kraus, an editor in Booklist’s Books for Youth department, said to me, “My first novel, The Monster Variations, was directly inspired by Dandelion Wine. The killer-in-the-woods portions, obviously, although mostly I was struck by Bradbury’s tone, the way he could couple sweet nostalgia with ominous darkness. How he remembers childhood is how I remember it, too.”
The killer-in-the woods portions are the darkest moments in Dandelion Wine. A figure popularly called the Lonely One is never really far from the town’s consciousness. “Death was the Lonely One, unseen, walking and standing behind trees, waiting in the country to come in, once or twice a year, to this town, to these streets, to these many places where there was little light, to kill one, two, three women in the past three years.” Like a fairy-tale troll residing under a bridge, the Lonely One is most closely associated by townspeople with the ravine that runs through the community: “that intangible menace, that groping out of darkness, that crouching malignancy down below.”
The Lonely One brought Dandelion Wine even closer to me and my classmates when one student brought up an incident in our hometown’s past. During WWII, for an entire summer, the town was jittery over a series of purported gas attacks at night, which left victims feeling nauseated and numb. Our teacher reminded us that she was living in our town in the summer of 1944 and knew firsthand the high anxiety everyone experienced. The incident gained national attention. (Google “Mad Gasser of Mattoon”) and has been generally ascribed to mass hysteria due to the war and the absence of so many able-bodied men. The difference between Mattoon’s Mad Gasser and Green Town’s Lonely One is that the latter is real, and in a scary chapter, he follows a young woman into her house, only to be stabbed by her with a pair of scissors.
There are moments of sheer beauty as well. One such chapter sensitively depicts young newspaperman Bill Forrester’s friendship with the elderly Miss Helen Loomis, who, every time she invites Bill to tea, casts a spell over him with her tales of travel.
The summer for Douglas will come to include witchcraft and potions, an old man who is a very real time machine, and seeds for grass that will grow only so long and never need cutting. It is a hard-hearted reader who isn’t sad to reach the book’s end, to surrender the magic till the next time Dandelion Wine is read.
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