Dandelion Wine is a summer read if ever there was one. I know quite a few Ray Bradbury lovers who read it as a summer ritual, and for good reason. From the first moments when we meet Douglas Spaulding, we know his life is one of imagination and adventure. In Dandelion Wine, Doug is tantalized by the summer season, and his full-bodied experiences entice the most reticent reader to enter again into a season of discovery. One of the most notable elements of Bradbury’s fiction is this ability to depict the wonder and sometimes harsh reality of childhood through experience and imagery.
We can relive our own childhood awakening through Douglas’s first summer moments. Riding in his Dad’s car through the countryside, Doug declares that “Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all the senses at once.” This was that day for Doug where he literally became aware of every sight, sound, and taste about him in the woods.
That God-given wonder is ever about us. I remember going on fishing trips with my father and big sister in the early Mississippi morning hours to a local pond or practically anywhere he could drive his 1971 Chevy truck under an hour’s time. Even at five years of age, I could bait my own hooks with crickets and worms. The problem was that I was easily distracted by the wonder of where we were. I could sit on a bank and doodle my bobber in the water for a time, but almost always, I would leave my pole and wander a dirt path or two, investigating for critters. For me, the freedom to explore a new place away from the neighborhood, even for a morning, was a treasure. I could sit still and listen to the wind in the pines, the squabble of jays, the plunk of bullfrogs for what seemed an infinitesimal day. I could close my eyes and just feel the aliveness around me, the breeze, the humid liquid air, the sense of a twig in my hand as I dug in the dirt.
Like Doug, I could open my eyes and know that “absolutely everything was there. The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him.” It’s the utter sense of being fully awake and being wholly part of a place and moment in time, and Bradbury captures this experience with ease and beauty.
Though Doug begins his summer declaring, “I want to feel all there is to feel,” he soon discerns that time is slipping quickly by. “The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing.” Through the experience of life and death in the town and their family, Doug and his brother realize that happy endings don’t always go with summer, but it is a part of awakening to life as it is. Ideals, harsh truths, and pain go hand in hand.
I remember my first experience with death on one of those same summer fishing days, and it too startled me. I had been fishing with a juicy worm in the hot sun without luck when my bobber jerked deep. I hollered for my dad who ran to help pull the fish in, but it was a red snapping turtle instead. It was huge to my small eyes, and it would not let go of my line once my dad had it on the bank. Over and over, my dad tried to get it to bite a stick. I was fascinated by their tussle, and my dad kept trying, all to save a hook. Finally the turtle stretched his neck out and bit. As soon as it crunched, my dad whipped out his Bowie knife and cut off its head, saying something like “it was too ornery for its own good.” I was mortified and sickened. I had caught many a tiny box turtle in our yard as a pet kept for weeks at a time, and I sure didn’t understand my dad’s reaction. I just sat down in the dirt and cried out of pure shock as my dad flung the parts into the lake.
Like Tom who sees a different part of his mother’s character one night at the ravine or like Doug who loses a friend to a move or like both boys as they lose neighbors and their own great-grandma to death, so many changes come at unexpected times. Something as pleasant as a summer day can devolve into horror and grief in an instant. The wonder and simple pleasures of summer then can not only be contagious at times as we revel in creation and in experience, but they can also be tempered by the realities of life and death.
The paradox of life is clear as these boys mature and step out from the familiar shelter of childhood. It is a reminder to us, perhaps even a call. Our adult experience might tell us to be realistic, to expect the negative. But I think Bradbury might be countering that harshness with a call to live with a sense of expectancy rather than expectation.
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The featured image is “Parkville Main Street” by Gale Stockwell.