This book has been sitting on my shelf for some time. I finally decided to read it through when I came across a short video of Ray Bradbury talking about it, in light of the 2006 sequel. In the interview, an 87-year-old Bradbury said: "people come to my stories knowing that I'm one of the world's greatest lovers... I love movies, the stage, libraries, and it shows in my work, so people come to me to learn how to love. That way, you influence people; they don't know that they're being influenced, but they are. They hold out their hands, and their souls are in the hands, waiting to be warmed.
"I've written many stories about older people. When I wrote Dandelion Wine years ago I wrote about older people and their relationships with younger people, and in recent years I wrote a sequel, a conversation between a thirteen-year-old, myself, and the 87-year-old man, myself now. The two Bradburys are in the book: the young one and the old one. The old person is there and the young person is there. Like Grant and Lee at Appomattox, they have to make peace with each other, and they have to have an exchange of ideas, so that the young boy accepts the old man, and the old man accepts the boy, so my latest novel is about myself at this age accepting myself when I was thirteen. It's a great thing!" (2011)
This 1957 gem of a novel is among Bradbury's very best, in an unexpected way. The poetic imagery be strong with this one! This gorgeous narrative is about two brothers' summer adventures in childhood, replete with experiences that occur around them in a town, constituting, in the words of one reviewer, a love letter to summer holidays. As with many of Bradbury's novels, this is bursting at the seams with quotables. It's set in the summer of 1928, in the fictional town of Green Town, IL, one loosely based on his own childhood hometown, Waukegan, IL. It began life as a short story of the same title, which featured in "Gourmet" magazine in June, 1953. The title refers to a compote beverage believed to be of Celtic origin, comprised of ingredients such as dandelion petals from the bright, yellow heads (but don't use the green base; it will make the concoction bitter!), citrus fruits, raisins and sugar, mirthful ingredients representing "all the joys of summer in a single bottle." Bradbury writes: "Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered."
Indeed, the novel itself reads like one of Bradbury's exquisite short story collections, appearing as a pearl-string of vignettes, focused on place memory and especially the relations between young and old, old and new. Here, in an unspoilt small town, in the wake of a great conflagration and an ensuing pandemic which has nonetheless resulted in a new era of interconnectedness, bringing novelty and rapid social change, elders wish to make a connection with the young and the next generation, to preserve their own youth, to bind together past, present and future, to leave something of themselves behind when they're gone.
The novel thus also highlights an ensuing resistance to change, and the acknowledgement that not everything new is better. My favorite chapter was 39, "The Magic Kitchen," where the past and the present must negotiate for precious, contentious space. In the name of progress, novelty, Aunt Rose convinces Doug's grandmother that she should change her time-honored cooking methods, which involves rearranging her kitchen, wearing glasses and working from a cookbook rather than reliance on recipes committed to memory, which have been passed down through generations and over the course of a lifetime, embedded deeply enough to constitute animal instinct.
Aunt Rose initially persuades Grandma to abandon time-honored tradition and accumulated ancestral knowledge, but Doug intervenes: fearful of losing the magic of Grandma's kitchen and her collection of place-memory spells, he steals downstairs at night and restores the kitchen to its former glory, ridding the house of the glasses and the cookbook, so that Grandma can reconstitute her love of cooking. The result is that family tradition continues uninterrupted, un-defiled, pristine, with everyone sitting down to a veritable family feast. Perhaps one reason I liked this novel so much is that there is a definitive anti-techology/progress vibe to it. Tradition wins out over novelty and persists just a little longer in the safe harbor of a small Midwest town, although there is the ultimate acknowledgement that nothing stays the same forever. Still, the loss of childhood memory and innocence is something to lament, not celebrate.
The last chapter of the book brings an end to the glorious summer of 1928, with Douglas and his brother Tom perusing the shop window for school supplies, as the family makes preparations for the autumn to shortly to come. Douglas finally acknowledges, on the cusp of self-awareness and hence adulthood (and by extension, a loss of innocence), "if trolleys and runabouts and friends and near friends can go away for a while or go away forever, or rust, or fall apart or die, and if people can be murdered, and if someone like great-grandma, who was going to live forever can die... if all this is true... Douglas Spaulding, some day, must."
This delightful, introspective, semi-autobiographical novel about a boy's recollection of a summer in his childhood in rural Illinois is definitely is in keeping with Bradbury's statements above. Its most profound passages stay with you for the rest of your life, and speak to someone's life experiences in a way in which only Bradbury can. The beautiful, prolific visual details are among Bradbury's best and most poignant. The protagonist is at an age at which people are beginning to grasp the gravity and enormity of life, including its impermanence, which comes the realization that things won't always be the way they are, hence the recurrent theme of youth and old age: it's the age when one can comprehend death, and that the people who are with us now won't always be. Every moment with them is precious, like the poignant, profound and inestimably insightful passages of one of Bradbury's most underrated but most stellar masterpieces.