Dandelion Wine (Ray Bradbury)

Posted: October 23, 2015 in fiction
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A new kind of novel by Ray Bradbury, master of miracles, fantasy and terror, and the author of THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, A MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.

False advertising. There was nothing new about this sort of novel. Cranford, The Pickwick Papers . . . A group of episodes joined by their common setting and characters. You see, Ray Bradbury grew up in a small town in the Midwest, in town with his enormous, amazing extended family. He wrote a bunch of stories about them, some realistic, some re-imagined with supernatural effects. The realistic ones were gathered with a bit of framing narrative, and became Dandelion Wine. The supernatural ones, when joined with the work of Charles Addams, led to The Addams Family, and then later were collected in their original state as The October Country. But there’s nothing earth-shattering about this book.

That being said, it’s really good.

This is a story of childhood, based on Bradbury’s own, but fictionalized. The detail I’ve been pondering on the most is the timing: summer of 1928. Summer is the most intense experience of childhood; away from school and responsibilities, children are free to be themselves. But the important thing is the year. The next year, the stock market crashed, and the world slid into the Great Depression. The United States got out of the Depression by supplying World War II, and since the introduction of nuclear weapons we haven’t had a moment’s rest. 1928 was the last peaceful time for the United States, when we weren’t afraid. Three generations now, who don’t understand what it was like in 1928, when there was no fear. My grandfather, who was five years old in 1928, died six months ago, and there are not many people of his age left in the world.

I grew up in the 1980s. When my parents were kids, they were taught that they could be safe in a nuclear attack with Duck and Cover, but my generation didn’t have that false hope. We knew that at any moment we could all be killed. Everything we knew and loved could be destroyed by the menacing, somehow simultaneously inept and dangerous enemy, there on the far side of the world. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, we had spread extra nuclear weapons in the Middle East to contain the Soviets, and then those weapons were turned on us. The Clinton years were less fearful, but then there were the September 11th attacks, and we now have a Department of Homeland Security, because even though we put more money into Defense than any nation should require, we still don’t feel safe. I voted for Obama primarily because he promised to get us out of our most dangerous conflicts in the Middle East, and he took his own sweet time doing it. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, my son called me to ask if I was in danger, because he was learning about current events in school. I want my kids to see the world as beautiful and exciting, not scary and war-torn.

This novel is about time. It slips and slides away from us. . .

“John!”

For John was running, and this was terrible. Because if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching!

“John!”

. . . and the timeframes of our lives don’t match up, as when a thirty-year-old man falls in love with a ninety-year-old woman.

“Do you know, it’s lucky we met so late. I wouldn’t have wanted you to meet me when I was twenty-one and full of foolishness.”

“They have special laws for pretty girls twenty-one.”

“So you think I was pretty?”

He nodded good-humoredly.

“But how can you tell?” she asked. “When you meet a dragon that has eaten a swan, do you guess by the few feathers left around the mouth? That’s what it is – a body like this is a dragon, all scales and folds. So the dragon ate the white swan. I haven’t seen her for years. I can’t even remember what she looks like. I feel her, though. She’s safe inside, still alive; the essential swan hasn’t changed a feather. Do you know, there are some mornings in spring or fall, when I wake and think, I’ll run across the fields into the woods and pick wild strawberries! Or I’ll swim in the lake, or I’ll dance all night tonight until dawn! And then, in a rage, discover I’m in this old and ruined dragon. I’m the princess in the crumbled tower, no way out, waiting for her Prince Charming.”

“You should have written books.”

“My dear boy, I have written. What else was there for an old maid? I was a crazy creature with a headful of carnival spangles until I was thirty, and then the only man I ever really cared for stopped waiting and married someone else. So in spite, in anger at myself, I told myself I deserved my fate for not having married when the best chance was at hand. I started traveling. My luggage was snowed under blizzards of travel stickers. I have been alone in Paris, alone in Vienna, alone in London, and, all in all, it is very much like being alone in Green Town, Illinois. It is, in essence, being alone. Oh, you have plenty of time to think, improve your manners, sharpen your conversations. But I sometimes think I could easily trade a verb tense or a curtsy for some company that would stay over for a thirty-year weekend.”

Yeah, I could use a pleasant houseguest who stays for a lifetime. The first time I wanted someone who was beautiful, virtuous, and talented; I found it, but now I want someone who is kind, financially stable, and who loves to have sex with me. And male. The ex was none of those things. The first three qualities are still favorable, but the latter four have become more important.

Bradbury also describes what it’s like to be depressed, in terms intelligible to a twelve-year-old with that mental colour.

“Doug,” he said, “you just lie quiet. You don’t have to say anything or open your eyes. You don’t even have to pretend to listen. But inside there, I know you hear me, and it’s old Jonas, your friend. Your friend,” he repeated and nodded.

He reached up and picked an apple off the tree, turned it round, rook a bite, chewed, and continued.

“Some people turn sad awfully young,” he said. “No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.”

He took another bit of the apple and chewed it.

“Well, now, where are we?” he asked.

He tells this to our protagonist, who had a dangerous fever at the time. He mentions later that this night that Mr Jonas visits, he chooses to live. This is why I’m still here; I have chosen to live. Sometimes this decision is in danger of changing, but I will continue to choose to live. I found a clear medical reason for my recent cloud of gloom, unrelated to my financial, romantic, or spiritual difficulties. I’ve always figured that sushi was safe for someone with coeliac disease, because it’s rice, raw fish, and vegetables. So the local grocery store has a sushi counter – hooray for the randomness of Texas – and I’ve been treating myself to some cheap sushi when I want to comfort-eat. But it turns out that they use fermented wheat protein to bind the rice together; in other words, the part of the plant that is poisonous to me is the part I’ve been eating. Depression and rage are a normal part of my body’s response to gluten. I really need people to start reminding me of that when I get that way.

So, time. When I get depressed, I want time to slow down. I binge-watch TV programs until I fall asleep, or I read in the tub late at night, unwilling to go to bed because that means the day is ending and I’ll have to start the next one. But moments don’t last. I wake up at half past midnight, sweat-stuck to the leather loveseat with a crick in my awkwardly bent neck, or up to my chin in cold water with hands and feet so wrinkled they hurt. I’ve been so unwilling to let time move along that I’ve been putting off my blogwriting – I’ve finished another book since this one, and am nearly half-way through the next. But a good friend once told me of the antidepressant qualities of really strong chili peppers, so I’ve been eating spicy foods and cutting out the sushi and getting better. I’m letting go of my need to control time.

I may have passed my childhood in a time of fear, but I don’t have to stay that way. As I think over the films I love from that time, yes, I see the fear, but I also see the hope. We may have had Red Dawn, but we also had Back to the Future and Footloose, media that remind us we can make positive changes in the world. Even kids can make the world a better place. I may not be Michael J Fox or Kevin Bacon, and I’m certainly not a teenager, but I can give my children a better world than the one I received from my parents. Maybe this is why I’m still teaching; I believe in the ability of teachers to improve worlds, one life at a time. I may find hope by leading others to it.

Bradbury’s stories are not always hopeful. People die, streetcars are replaced by buses, the happiness machine brings unhappiness and is destroyed, eras end. But the eras of happiness and peace existed, and when we’re threatened by poverty and war, we can remember when things were different, and as long as we know that life doesn’t have to be this way, we can change it. Perhaps this piece of nostalgia can benefit our future.

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Comments
  1. I liked Dandelion Wine, too–though my favorite chapter was the one about Mrs. Bentley. I am sorry to hear that gluten has gotten in under your guard again. Freaking gluten.

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