Thursday, December 6, 2012

Time-Travel Home

In Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury has captured childhood’s wonders like so many lightning bugs in a mason jar. A reader turning the book’s pages removes rusty lid to release twinkling magical miracles to flit and glow in the gloaming.

Summer of 1928, Douglas Spaulding was twelve. Numbered bottles of dandelion wine he and ten-year-old brother Tom make with their grandfather represent significant moments of that summer. A bottle with a June date reminds Douglas of the happy first day of summer; a later-dated bottle reminds him of the sad day his best friend moved away. Looking at Grandfather’s shelf of date-labeled yellowish bottles, Douglas thinks: “There’s the day I found I was alive, … , and why isn’t it brighter than the others? There’s the day John Huff fell of the edge of the world; why isn’t it darker than the others?”

Dandelion Wine delights on several levels: (1) The running tumbling wondering daring imagining sheer ALIVENESS of children refreshes my jaded outlook like a glass of ice-cold lemonade (or maybe dandelion wine, though I’ve never tasted that) on perspiring brow. (2) Thanks to Bradbury’s vivid language, I swirl the sweet-sour stuff from tip of tongue to curve of throat. It’s squeezed from freshest lemons, sweetened with purest cane. And I’m sipping in slightest breeze of creaking porch swing.

While telling readers simple, everyday events of small-town folks in 1928, Bradbury also shows the human condition—innocence and evil, youth and old age, life and death, curious imagination and complacent habit. Underlying all is each person’s aloneness, each person’s singular perspectives, attitudes, actions, and interactions. The summer of 1928 happens to be a time of both discovery and loss for Douglas, and his 12-year-old mind tries to figure its meaning. Though surrounded and influenced by family and neighbors, Douglas faces alone what that summer holds for him. As do we all.

I love not only the universality of Dandelion Wine’s story, but also Bradbury’s lively language. As his Douglas Spaulding gulps every moment of summer, he transports me back to childhood. Listen to Douglas’s vivid thoughts when his father asks him to explain why he needs a new pair of tennis shoes: “Somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and coiled springs in the soles and they wove the rest out of grasses bleached and fired in the wilderness. Somewhere deep in the soft loam of the shoes the thin hard sinews of the buck deer were hidden. The people that made the shoes must have watched a lot of winds blow the trees and a lot of rivers going down to the lakes. Whatever it was, it was in the shoes, and it was summer. Douglas tried to get all this in words.” Bradbury’s exuberant, excited-to-be-alive writing style makes me want to shake off decades of inhibitions, leave them in a gray heap on the sidewalk, and cartwheel off into green grass.

I just have to mention one other episode that enchants me. The neighborhood children were fascinated with machines. They imagined a happiness machine, wanted a fortune-telling machine, and sat spellbound by a time machine. How clever that they recognized one of their most elderly neighbors as a “time machine” who could take them back in time because he had been present at historical events. He regaled the children with personal stories of a 1910 variety show, an 1875 bison stampede, and 1865 Antietam, Bull Run, and Shiloh battles.

Part A Child’s Garden of Verses, part Norman Rockwell painting, Dandelion Wine itself is an enchanting elixir Bradbury concocts from a weed flower.